Monday, November 18, 2013

Online Activism Beyond the Millennial Generation

I'll be the first to admit that my political views were mostly formed and molded in an online setting. I sought answers beyond those available to me in books, craving the interplay and debate that lead to mature understanding. Online discourse readily invites criticism and critique, removing the need to be polite under the guise of anonymity. The Internet has showed me what people really believe underneath the surface pleasantries. Though we fancy ourselves, as Americans, an opinionated, but level-headed people, we are instead often very repressed and angry.

Some of this may be a result of how we are taught, starting in childhood. Though some interaction between teacher and student is acceptable and encouraged, most of our attention is passive. This approach is often one-sided. I talk, you listen. Critical thinking is essential to comprehension. because it allows us to connect the dots between related disciplines. Our opinions are not secondary to the discussion at hand, they are integral and as important as any lecture. Critical thinking encourages everyone to have a say, based on the information they have absorbed. Educated guesses are what is needed, not emotionally charged, underdeveloped statements intended to shock and offend.

Before someone coined the term "social media", I found companionship and education with people I rarely met face to face. And even today, years later, I may never. I am proud of the achievements of my generation, who have used this relatively new platform to great effect. Causes have been illustrated in rich, brilliant hues. Though Internet communication lends itself to cowardly trolls and those who want attention in the worst way, one shouldn't discount the technology's immense power to educate and build a greater understanding.

For those under the age of forty, it is relatively easy to start people thinking and talking online. A need exists and people arrive to fill it. Yet, the question remains: how do you reach out beyond your target audience? The Quaker meeting where I am a leader and member reflects the demographics of most houses of worship these days, especially the liberal ones. Young Adults like myself are an enthusiastic minority, but a minority nonetheless. My work requires lots of interaction with people who are the age of my parents, and occasionally those of a generation older than that. The Meeting is large and it is impossible to speak to everyone face-to-face.

A few older adults have embraced an online universe with the zeal of a new convert. Many more have been known to resist, unwilling to learn, feeling entirely out of their comfort zones. An integrated, well-constructed platform of information exchange and commentary is often disregarded, much to the misfortune of everyone. But in general, I know that, five years into my ministry, I am finally being heard. 

Much discourse beyond that of an hour's worth of Worship is concentrated in two or three listserves. I've written posts specifically for it, shared pertinent content by other writers, and generally tried to be interesting and compelling. What I trot out rarely gets many comments. Friends are more compelled to read than to reply, but I hope that means I'm viewed as an authority, not a rube. My goal in writing, regardless of intended audience is to invoke contemplation in those who enjoy what I've posted. 

If I had any salient point to share about online activism for everyone, it is the continual effort needed to rope in the reluctant or the intimidated. Shortly before she died, my grandmother asked me to teach her how to use the Internet. It had value to her and she saw how important it had become to the society around her. The first thing I had to teach her is that the DOS classes she took thirty years before were now mostly useless. Following that, progress could be measured at a glacier's pace, but she had at least made the effort to buy a computer and to learn. Until the day she died, my grandmother always viewed the computer as an intimidating machine, hiding its secrets, full of mysterious buttons to push in sequence.

Challenges aside, I find much rewarding in the combination of opinions and terminology that characterize those of my own set. Having said that, I know that my own generation is still greatly behind and deficient in shaping both policy and opinion. Much of my work in outreach to other groups has required I push aside my own bitterness, and begin a dialogue with those who have been known to see me as invisible. This was the reason why online young feminist forums and blogs, for example, sprang up and continue to grow. There must be a willingness to set aside frustrated views, on both sides, that stem from misunderstanding and a lack of adequate communication.    

The generational divide is just as daunting a challenge as the racial divide. Often, both parties begin with defensive postures, expecting confrontation, not conciliation. Inflammatory remarks are a self-fulfilling prophecy, to be expected and then refuted strongly with equally condemning language. It may be helpful here to speak of the difference between sins of commission and sins of omission. We often confuse the two. Sins of omission are, in this context, usually those of privilege, of unconscious slights. Sins of commission are easy to spot, and are usually quite deliberate. Racial slurs and threatened violence fall into this category.

It would be best if we did not talk past people, or worse yet, talk down to them. Blame is not nearly as important as learning from these exchanges. In the end, muting the stridency and volume of our replies could never be confused as a peacemaking exercise. It's a good first step, but it shouldn't stop there. It's easy to go right back to repression, putting a cork in the bottle once more. We can go silent and then explode, or we can do our work. Every interpersonal interaction is a lesson and an exercise in success, not in futility.  

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