Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A network of circles with stick figure faces inside, some in shock, some in tears, some angry. All of them watch at a distance one while stick figure towers over another with a weapon, and the other is on their knees waiting for the next blow.
Witnessing oppression one bit at a time

On the internet, we are all bystanders

My childhood was full of traumatic events. I was bullied verbally and physically for years. I hid my transness out of fear of rejection, abandonment, and violence. My parents’ divorce thrust me into a position of parental and sibling caregiving early in life, leaving little room for me manage my own emotional wellbeing, let alone receive emotional support for it. I’ve told many therapists that I was an adult by the time I was 12; even my own parents joked about my maturity, as it if it was an intrinsic trait, as opposed to a product of circumstances that they and the world had created.

But some of the trauma in our lives is something we witness. For example, I remember a day in 7th grade, idling outside after school with my friends, waiting for our buses to arrive. We were playfully reciting lyrics of our new favorite show, Animaniacs, laughing and retelling our favorite scenes, when one of my friend’s bullies approached. We braced ourselves for some verbal insult or shove; those came. But to our surprise, they then escalated into a ruthless knee to my friend’s groin. I watched my friend fall to the ground, in tears, as everyone around waited in shock for someone to intervene. Eventually, a teacher came, but so did our bus; we rode home in silence. My friend didn’t come back to school for a week. And when he did, he was never the same or treated the same, as he was the boy who may or may not have lost his manhood because of how he wore his hair that day.

In that week after, I wrestled with lot of questions. Could I have prevented it? What should I have done to deescalate it? Why did this happen to my friend, and not me or any of the other kids? Was my friend going to be okay? I felt what I know now to be survivor guilt, believing I should have protected my friend, or at least should have been a victim as well. But I did nothing. Of course, in the early 1990’s, these were not things that children discussed, with each other or the adults in our lives, and so that moment was mine to process, alone. And out of that isolation, I developed an impossible resolve to never be a bystander again, but also a resentment of anyone who was.

Thirty years later, as an actual adult, I find myself in a similar world of oppression. As in middle school, people are bullying me, but they are mostly strangers: power hungry politicians, religious conservatives, and transphobic women who are threatened by my existence. And as in middle school, politicians, police, the powerful and are bullying my friends, taking their reproductive rights away, banning their health care, and silencing teachers from answering questions about gender. In these ways, adulthood in the 2020’s is no different from my adolescence in the 1990’s, just situated on a bigger stage, with bigger consequences.

But in so many ways, it is different. In my pre-internet middle school days, I was only bystander to what I saw or perhaps heard, through rumors. I might learn of an injustice in history, but to my teachers and classmates, it was a distant, long past event, with no apparent link to today. My ability to see traumatizing behavior was limited to a very small part of the world, and to the moment, and so witnessing trauma, and the guilt that with that, was limited too.

In the age of the internet, however, I witness a dozen injustices a day. Consider today alone: A white supremacists massacre. A million Americans unnecessarily dead of COVID-19. A country invaded. Hundreds of millions of people on the edge of losing control over their own bodies. Millions of trans youth losing rights to live saving treatment. Thousands of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes. Unprecedented, preventable heatwaves in India. I certainly pay more attention to these tragedies than I did when I was 12, and injustices like these have always happened at a global scale, but with the internet, they have also never been more visible, reported, and shared.

Social media has not only amplified the visibility of trauma, but also of silence. Every tragedy is coupled with entire platforms of people who did not notice, did not care, and certainly does not plan on intervening. The past few years of attacks on my own civil rights have often felt like the same repeating global dialog:

  • Transphobes: “You’re disgusting. As of today, you and your life are illegal.
  • Trans folks: “Someone, please help!
  • Bystanders: “You’re so brave! You’re strong, you’ll get through this.

This individualist sympathy stings the same every time, as it communicates so clearly: I’m sorry for your oppression, but it’s not my responsibility, and I wouldn’t know what to do anyway.

And then, of course, every day I do the same thing, to people losing reproductive rights, to Black folks seeing yet another police or white supremacist murder, to migrants separated from their families by broken borders, to the victims of genocide globally, do little more than liking a tweet or blogging about it, as if either will change anything.

At some level, I understand why so many simply don’t care. It’s exhausting to care on the internet. To truly see someone’s shared humanity, at the daily scale of visible abuse, and to sacrifice your own wellbeing, resources, and time to come to someone’s aid when they are suffering, is terrifying and overwhelming. I think we are all too inescapably social of creatures to do nothing when we really face injustice and so most of us look away. Because if we don’t, and we do nothing, we face that same survivor guilt that I first felt waiting for the bus, watching my friend humuliated and injured on the ground.

When I fall into this individualist trap, this is when I lose hope. It’s when I find community that being more than a bystander feels possible, even at the global scale of the internet. Community helps us carry the weight of caring together. It amplifies are ability to correct injustice. It deters the kind of bullying and oppression that has never felt more visible in the world. It helps us see and process the traumas that flow from these injustices, so that they do not fester in our minds, unaddressed. Strong community is not just helpful to fighting injustice; it is the solution to injustice.

And yet, the internet alone is insufficient for building that community. It is certainly a helpful tool for connecting, but in no way is it built to create connection. That requires the hard work of vulnerable, caring, and loving communication that seems ever more frightening, especially when facing someone, embodied, in the same physical space. And so we retreat to computer-medicated communities out of fear, hoping to extrude whatever bits of concern, respect, warm, and intimacy fit into our encodings.

As we all re-enter the physical world, risking our lives and others’ amidst this pandemic, I hope we will remember these stakes, and use our precious time together to witness each others’ suffering, step in, and share the load. As tired as we all are, I think it’s the only way we survive and the only way we live.

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.