Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Liberals - Stop Preaching to the eChoir!

I love the speed and breadth at which we can communicate using online methods. But when we combine that with social activism, I am afraid that we could be shooting ourselves in the collective progressive foot.

Let's just think for a second about the last email you got about a political issue, or a policy that you believed in. If you are like me, you forwarded it on. If you are like me, you sent it to a series of people that you knew would appreciate it. In essence, you preached to the choir. And, while being able to engage in some self-congratulatory emails back and forth for sharing the same opinion, what have we accomplished?

How many times have you added your name to an online petition? What made it more than a perpetually circulating chain letter, like the one saying, "Warning, PBS is about to lose funding!"

The danger is that after we forward on letters to like-minded people, or sign these ghost ship emails, or put our names on activist websites, or join issue-based discussion groups with similarly minded folks -- we feel like we actually DID something!

We did. We talked to people who agreed with us. And, outside of the fact that we shared information, we didn't really accomplish much.

That is what is dangerous -- the myth of activity, the feeling that because we are on a mailing list, or send on emails, that we are part of something of value as a change agent. While Twitter may reach a broad expanse of people, it has yet to prove its worth as an agent of change. Each tweet has a half life of nanno seconds -- like an email. The message comes, goes, and is replaced by another. Our attention moves down the electronic slipstream and barely lingers long enough to register what it has seen.

Meanwhile, the extreme right is gathering. Face to face. In public. They are putting what they believe out in front of everyone who disagrees with them, and in front of television cameras.

At least you know where to find them, and you don't have to be all alone in front of a computer screen to do it.

They are building community while the left builds email lists.

They give real faces to the beliefs they have. People get to see who they are. And the extreme right gets to capitalize on the lack of visibility of the left. The left gets to be a visual myth to folks -- not a group made up of a diverse community of neighbors.

I live next door to a woman who is a "Tea Bagger". She even marched on Washington, even though she is not a far-right wing person. She is a staunch conservative. She knows I do not share her beliefs because of the campaign posters that I erect in my yard at election time, and because I won't indulge unquestioned rhetoric. I like her, although our beliefs are wide apart. She respects the fact that I hold different beliefs, and sees me as a good neighbor, as I do her. We laughed about it the other day across the fence between our yards -- and high five'd each other saying "God Bless America".

Recently she has joined a group of TB-ers who picket at the town square every Friday about some right-wing issue or another. It varies by week. They hold their signs and wave to people driving by. My least favorite sign was "Liberals don't care about the working man." They actually believe that. Or they were told to believe that.

But there they are, with their signs and honest smiles. So what should I do? Send another email?

I have decided to come up with a series of signs for my front yard. Because of the proximity to a well-used public playground and to an athletic field, my street gets a fair amount of summer traffic. I am trying to decide what to say. I plan to rotate signs each week. I am open to suggestions.







Any other ideas?

It isn't earth shattering, but in a small town it could get some notice. And it gets me out of email. It's a start.

Yes, I also send money to causes that do work that I support. I back political candidates. I vote. I blog. But I do too many things in the self-serving isolation chamber of my computer -- and I bet that you might, too.

I am not saying that email is bad -- on the contrary -- it gets information out to a group of supporters faster than ever before. And it can supply information that outside of the electronic world can be used to change minds, influence positions.

But email unites no opposing sides, finds no middle ground, does not engage in dialogue, does no work for justice. Despite the tools we have online, we still need to do the tough work -- the work the right is not neglecting. We need to stand in the rain, leaflet, post or carry signs, demonstrate, and gather as a community with visible impact. We need to spend time visible to and with the people with which we disagree. We need to be real to them, to the media, to Washington (a city intimidated by the visible right.)

We need to make the statements that lead to discussions, and we need to engage in the discussion. And we need to engage face to face -- as neighbors, members of the same church, or school district, or city or world. And we need to be visible in the larger construct - in the world away from the ether and the heady illusions of having actually done something.


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