Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Facebook Politicians

In the first week after Israel assassinated a top military commander in Gaza my Facebook news feed started to transform itself from an unfortunate series of inner streams of consciousness to an even more unfortunate amalgamation of dead babies, “the real truth”, fictitious notions of Israel as the underdog in a sea of crazy Arabs, and links to YouTube videos re-tweets giving the real story or just a shameless pornography of death and blood to right my “apathetic moral compass” into action. No longer was I reading statuses about boyfriends, sleep, homework, the weather, and any other mundane activities that, for whatever reason, are made public. Instead, I was a privy to a shouting match every time I logged into Facebook.

 Apparently I have a very diverse friend group when it comes to the Palestine/Israel issue because just as many statuses were about the integrity of the IDF and the right for Israel to exist (which to my knowledge, Palestine has acknowledged at least twice, Camp David being one of them), as there were about Gaza as a victim of a disproportionate battle in the name of Israeli imperialism. So, for about a week, I was confronted with some kind of identity crisis logging into Facebook. Between my friends from home studying in the UK and else where banding together and documenting their political activism in cute outfits utilizing the Kafiya and Palestinian flag, to friends from university re-tweeting the bizarre IDF twitter feed (posting video’s of their military campaign) I was constantly being told, “here look at this link, if you do nothing, you must be inhuman…You are less of an Arab, you are less of a human, you are an Islamist, you are an imperialist, you are ill informed…etc…” However, “doing something”, seemed more like just clicking and watching YouTube videos that were involved in having parallel narratives of extremes rather than a conversation.

Something that is pointedly different from this Israeli excursion than the one that happened four years ago in 2009, other than the shift of power in the Middle East, namely the ouster of Mubarak a US pawn and thus by default an “ally” of Israel, is the role of social networking in constructing the narrative of this assault on humanity. The mainstream media largely manipulated the 2008-09 conflict, Operation Cast Lead, and the blockade on Gaza prevented reporters from getting in on the ground and so on. In 2012, social networking sites have allowed Gazzans to construct their own narrative and ensure an authentic reportage of their plight. 

I want to argue that social networking and the “click for compassion” ethos of 21st century activism is a double-edged sword. While social networking has been integral to the ability of Gazzan’s to propagate the truth that they, unfortunately, cannot rely on mainstream media to relay, abroad, social networking seems to polarize the conflict and the discourse that surrounds it.

The notion of solidarity is central to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Facebook is the perfect platform for solidarity without commitment. You can post a status get some “likes”, maybe have an online argument with some hothead from the opposing view, your friends will see it and rally to your defense, and voila you feel like you are raising awareness and part of a larger community of your same viewpoint. But get this, you didn’t even have to leave your room or stop whatever it was you were already doing to do it! Chances are that in another tab you are on tumbler, checking email, buying some shoes, and watching some more posts and links by your political milieu. Facebook makes solidarity a “reality” through numbers and online interactions; it bypasses issues of social hierarchies that come with physical gatherings of people, because the “space” where people converge is ephemeral and not grounded in physicality. The pleasure derived from advertising your solidarity through pictures of you at a protest prohibits any real efforts to ending the conflict. This is because, in this gyre of precarious existence, something like the Palestine/Israel conflict is the perfect framework to restore a sense of purpose and passion, even if it is designed to be virtually experienced and re-experienced. I suspect most people take a camera to a protest to take pictures of themselves to post on Facebook more than to document the event itself, it is about locating one in the world rather than the world itself.  If the Palestine/Israel conflict ended, where would all this energy go? What would unite Arabs in a “turbulent” Middle East, what unite Jews and Israeli’s all over the world?

 Activism has become a politics of voyeurism, vicariously living through the plight of others through the satisfaction of having an affective response to the “right side”. The avid Facebook politician engages in Fassin’s observation of humanitarianism as a fantasy of global morality and a constant. I observed that none of those who were viciously updating their statuses were linking me to articles they had written, anything longer than a run on sentence and, god forbid, an ounce of nuanced original thought seemed like a distant pipedream for those impassioned souls. (Maybe I am friends with the wrong people, or not looking hard enough)

Other than the issues of “slacktivism” in class, I want to add one more consequence of new media’s affect on activism. In some of the commercials we watched in class the language of disposability, waste, and guilt was painfully clear. Similarly, in the Israel/Palestine Facebook exchanges the rhetoric of just click and see, click and support, click for awareness evoked this notion of “non-commitment”. What this does is it equates the issue with time, money, and actions you as an activist can “dispose” of. Suddenly it trivializes the issues by putting them on the same line as things you as a citizen do without thinking, or don’t care enough to commit to, furthermore it makes that “ok”, it actually gives you a moral pat on the back. In addition, the discourse of “it will only take a moment of your time”, “just one click can help” etc… also implies that the solution of the problem or issue can be solved with enough people doing the bare minimum and not committing. It one-dimensionalizes the conflict to a simple matter of awareness and misinformation instead of illustrating that it is specifically the absence of commitment of the same people exhausting them selves on Facebook that allows conflicts to become a pissing contest between the powers that be.

The cycle of immediate gratification that social networking and click activism propagates is also a cycle of exhaustion and so, funny enough, it is a week later, a ceasefire has been reached in Gaza and slowly boyfriends, weather, lack of sleep, and food have been rotating back into their lost homes of “top news” in my Facebook newsfeed. It seems that after a week of furiously clicking and typing away the Facebook politicians got distracted, either by finals, or had their compassion activist global citizen fix for the year taken care of, or maybe the absence of dead babies at the hands of unmanned drones warrants a break from engaging with the conflict. Suddenly the weight of history and time makes clear that activism is commitment and being in a position outside the physical realm on the conflict requires more commitment than just re-posting.

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