There’s so much I can’t stand about social media. Like, so much. So I half get it when people are scathing about the Black Out Tuesday gesture: people posting black squares on Instagram in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, in support of protests, murders, the latest accumulation of generations of suffering coming to a head.
I hated that time when we were all expected to take make up free selfies to raise awareness for cancer. Not cause I mind people seeing me without make up but because it just all seemed irrelevant, not to mention incredibly vain; surely dreamt up by someone good looking enough to harvest plenty of compliments.
Remember that ice bucket challenge thing as well? I’m sure it was meant to be in aid of some less well known and underfunded disease, although what being drenched with cold water did to help I’m still unsure because I can’t remember the name of the condition.
Fortunately, we don’t usually have go to such lengths to show our support for good causes. That’s why people like the profile picture filters on Facebook so much. They don’t actually have to do anything but announce themselves as caring, as an ally, as a patriot, as a voter.
So I wasn’t surprised when the first tweets appeared casting aspersions on the Black Out Tuesday movement. That people were asking “What’s posting black squares on Instagram gonna do?”. I’m a cynical person who hates joining in at the best of times. You only have to ask Beverley from my old office who found the dough that she’d given me to make a ‘Herman the German Friendship Cake’ in the bin under my desk. Twice.
But this time, something seemed different. It wasn’t simply a case of posting a black square. It was what all those black squares said: that today I will step aside to let pressing matters related to the Black Lives Matter movement take precedence. And there were (that day and still now) lots of pressing matters. Spiralling police brutality, funds to help pay protestors’ bail, video footage, media coverage, finding out who is with you and who is against you.
That maybe for one day at least, people all across the world would stop and listen, enlighten and educate themselves, examine their own actions and behaviour. Maybe – easy now – take that gesture off Instagram and apply it to real life. That Black voices – especially Black women’s voices – are genuinely heard.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m old enough to be pretty pessimistic about any of this getting anyone anywhere. I was shocked at Rodney King, but I was a kid back then. It still sickens me but nothing shocks me any more. I know for a lot of younger people this is their first Rodney King, their first Watts riot, their first Tulsa. I know for kids in this country it’s their first Brixton, Broadwater Farm, Handsworth, Toxteth. So I’m not getting swept along on a tide of hope and optimism thinking everything’s going to be alright any time soon. But still, something did feel different about the black squares.
I think for me, it was an invitation to belt up for once. I posted my black squares on Instagram and I shut up. I kept quiet on Twitter except for retweeting messages pertinent to the Black Lives Matter movement and commentary from Black voices. Then I left it to those people whose voices need to be heard. Because yeah, sometimes you don’t know what to do right.
It occurs to me that many people, at times myself included, are guilty of either staying silent or not shutting up but very rarely listening. So by criticising the black squares, which everyone has the right to do, you are derailing the conversation. You are clogging up someone’s feed with your hot take. You are encouraging the many thousands of people who retweet and scoff with you, to turn their discussion to the means of support rather than the support itself.
I’m not talking about some of the very valid criticism of logistics. That many people were using the Black Lives Matter hashtag beneath their black squares, inadvertently clogging up the timeline for BLM related updates. Nor the generic finger pointing that black squares alone won’t fix anything; that there’s still more – much more – to be done. Notwithstanding the fact that even the black squares alone are at least a starting point, I’m talking about the fact that some people are just criticising for the sake of criticising. That they’re so used to talking loud – and crucially, being heard – that the very concept of shutting up and letting someone else have the light on them for a second is an alien concept. People are dying in the streets they live in, or having their eyes knocked out the sockets for protesting and you feel the need to throw your unhelpful two pence worth in for what?
The ease with which anyone can dismiss any element of support demonstrates how accustomed people are to sidelining, minimising, and derailing. Yes you might well think the black squares are a waste of time, and merely (the snide insult du jour) virtue signalling, but was your need to vocalise that of any value to the issue at hand?
Sometimes we have to do things we feel slight discomfort from doing. Mine was joining in with a widespread show of support for a public cause. Hardly a big ask. I didn’t think any less of anyone who didn’t do the same. But I was confident that those who did also took the opportunity to go beyond posting black squares. I wonder whether some people went beyond slagging them off?