On what is called awareness

Is there an obligation to speak out if nobody is listening?

The revolutionary paths of the twenty-first century will involve collective maneuvers out of anxious online reactivity.

Whenever horrific, unjust things occur, online social networks fill up with people telling you it is your duty to speak out against those things on the internet. But that is wrong: One’s duty is to determine as honestly and rigorously as possible the empirical conditions that would make those horrible things stop, and then to mold one’s life around increasing the probability of those conditions coming into existence. Clearly, it is hard to know for sure what exactly are those conditions and how exactly they are most likely to be brought about, so even in the most optimistic, mass revolutionary awakening we would hope to see many people doing many different things in many different ways. For some people, their honest path may involve social media activity, so that is what they should be doing. For many other people, however, social media is the exact opposite of what they would do if they honestly and freely came to their own personal judgments of how they should live against systemic injustices.

When social media activists start to think and speak as if social media is the primary yardstick of radical consciousness and public action, it is here that online social justice culture becomes a truly disingenuous and ultimately conservative racket. This is where social justice culture stops being rebellion and becomes a market of cultural entrepreneurs selling various diets for their followers to feel morally healthy in an otherwise morally intolerable world. One of the best signs of this is when simple empirical observations are so confidently dispensed with; given how easy it is to see that there are many life-long, deeply committed revolutionaries and fighters for social justice alive today who do not appear to be active on social media–to declare that social media activity is the measure of a person’s opposition to injustice is actually a very clever litmus test to see how many of one’s followers care so much about moral approval from the poster that they are publicly willing to admit and reveal demonstrably incorrect thinking and information. Most people who make such obviously false statements are really saying, “I am so satisfied with the moral energy or comfort I have found on social media that it must be morally necessary for others also.” This idea is false and conservative, primarily intended to conserve the existential needs of those speaking it. It is also conservative for blinding and discouraging others from the thousands of different revolutionary paths they could and should be off inventing.

Many of the smartest radicals I know are starting to realize that the truly ground-breaking, revolutionary paths of the twenty-first century will emerge in collective maneuvers out of this permanent state of anxious online reactivity. The internet is no longer a medium through which humans express and coordinate rebellion against external events, it is the medium through which external events coordinate how humans can and cannot express their rebellion. Anyone who has a good grasp of social reality and its mechanisms does not need to know every detail about every new police murder; when one understands something, one does not need to know certain details because one is already grappling with more general levels inclusive of those details. The revolutionaries of the twenty-first century will move away from weekly details in favor of becoming doubly based and sane and balanced and even joyous despite everything, because we realize that today these are precisely the most rare and most powerful capacities, perhaps the only ones, that have any chance at what we are up against. In the past year or two, I have decided to consciously abstain from commenting on current affairs precisely so I can save my neural and emotional resources for long, thoughtful, heartfelt reflections to share with people I know and care about, or to attempt writing for larger audiences than the few dozen people Mark Zuckerberg allows to see my Facebook posts. I personally think that’s a more revolutionary relationship to modern technology. But of course I think other people should do what they think is best. In my view, the point is to become capable of producing but also noticing revolutionary gestures in more and more possible modes of speaking and being.

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Murphy, Justin. 2016. "Is there an obligation to speak out if nobody is listening?," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2016/11/22/is-there-an-obligation-to-speak-out-if-nobody-is-listening/ (December 14, 2018).