The way forward
As President Donald J. Trump continues to systematically unravel the framework of environmental, humanitarian and welfare protection in the United States and across the world, we must keep in mind that while civic voice has a role to play, decisions are made within the system by power-holders and veto-players.
The boundaries between civic action and systemic change are not clearly defined. And civic mobilisation is a vital part of a healthy democracy. However, symbolic action, especially on social media — such as sharing stories, using temporary profile photos, creating and remixing memes etc — can only go so far, and in fact could create a sense of false empowerment or participation.
“I argue that consuming the social web and sharing that content for others to consume is not, in fact, using the social web to its potential. Even content-creation, if it is not truly reflexive, is just a mechanic reproduction of a consumer product… [W]hat are these individuals sharing? What are they communicating? How are the countless social operating systems on Facebook, such as the “What Prostitute Are You?” actually being productive?” (Bialski 2008)
“Technology has alienated people to such an extent that they mistake technological and symbolic action for social/political action. This is the commodity stance. You buy a certain product, and you’ve made a political statement. You buy a car that runs on salad oil. It’s still a car! Or make a documentary. Where did we cross that line where we forgot that making a documentary about how everyone would like to have a food co-op is not the same as having a food co-op? I think some people have lost that distinction”. (Bey 2004)
That is not to say that going out to the streets and demonstrating can be more effective. As we’ve seen countless times before, marches and demonstrations are, in fact, surprisingly ineffective ways of trying to change things — especially when they lack a clear political agenda, a disciplined communications strategy, a centralised hierarchy, member loyalty, physical presence and lots of resources, especially TV airtime and access to power. Protests and marches are good at raising awareness, engaging people and keeping activists motivated. But they are almost irrelevant to the workings of the political system. They used to be able to put pressure on politicians — to shame them into resigning or changing course. In an era of shameless propaganda and alternative facts, they seem old-fashioned. Every time someone posts an article from The Onion or the Borowitz Report we increasingly have to double-check it’s not actually real news — and vice versa.
So, how can we, as citizens, respond to the schizophrenic tsunami of populist, proto-totalitarian and culturally, socially and environmentally destructive initiatives? Ideally, in a representative democracy, through voting. Trump won. And Republicans won. This is a lesson that has to be learnt by everyone else. However much we may protest, governments and legislatures are elected at the polls — and rightly so.
Still, the US system of government provides citizens and civil society with checks and balances and ample opportunities for voice: from contacting and lobbying your elected representatives (remember, they want to be re-elected in 2 or 4 years’ time) to supporting good journalism (yes, that means paying for your daily newspaper) to volunteering so that civil society starts to cover some of the gaps created by the retreat of the state, to donating, to joining others (across the globe) in conversation. But that conversation has to go beyond the toxic mix of propaganda, ad hominems, trolling, satire, hyperbole, memes and despair. It has to generate new insights and new ideas. It has to build channels of communication and bridges of understanding amongst people who fundamentally disagree with each other. It has to support the civic culture and the social fabric. It has to enable disaffected people to engage. It has to inspire people to go out there and take action — action that is civic, legal and civil. Action that is meaningful — that actually helps.
Perhaps the three most fundamental mistakes that perfectly decent and well-meaning citizens make are (i) to evaluate input (intentions) rather than output (results and impact); (ii) to conflate policy (values, issues, principles, the end) and politics (process, debate, the power game, the means to achieving that end); and (iii) to seek purity and perfection — i.e. fail to accept that they will have to compromise and coexist with others in the same community. Maybe we should start planning our civic action the other way around than we so far have done: what is it that we’re trying to achieve and change? What is the most effective way to do that? What does that require? This kind of strategic thinking is not something that individuals can do on their own. It requires large groups of people. It requires planning and expertise. It requires hierarchies and resources. And it costs time, energy and money that many people can’t spare. But politics isn’t easy. Nor should it be, because this is not about ‘me’. It involves interacting with others — working with them, agreeing and disagreeing with them, persuading them, coexisting with them. And as we all know human relationships are notoriously messy. But that’s the only way forward.