The Academic Lag and the Power of Social Media as a Tool of Social Justice

This new civil rights movement would not have been possible without social media.  I have no doubts about that.  The difference between this civil rights movement and the one that happened in the 60’s is that people all around the country, and the world, can now talk to one another about their struggles.  Any member of any underprivileged group can tell you how important that is; to be surrounded by people who are different from you, disagree with you, and invalidate every one of your struggles is not a pleasant existence.  Social media has helped the underprivileged connect with one another and support one another in a way that did not exist before.  It has helped us self-care in ways that would not have been possible a decade ago.  It has enabled us to stand in solidarity with one another and realize that yes, something is indeed fucked up about this country.  It enabled a revolution.

In the previous civil rights movement, activists from different parts of the country did not have an easy means of communicating with one another.  Information and its flow was severely restricted in those days.  People relied on the news and the radio to stay informed.  This is an especially problematic means of attaining information for oppressed groups.  Major news networks are only interested in telling one narrative: the rich white male narrative.  This bias is evident in everything they both report on and do not report on.  The stories of the oppressed become suppressed.  Major news networks depend on ratings for their livelihood; this means that they are aiming to appeal to the widest audience possible.  The erasure of underprivileged stories is inevitable in these types of power structures.  Thank heaven for social media.

Academia has failed to adapt to this new paradigm of civil rights activism.  Both the dissemination and procurement of knowledge in academia is largely done through peer-reviewed journals and conferences.  This paradigm is woefully outdated and cannot keep up with the frenzied dissemination of knowledge and information of social media.  First, journals only publish a handful of issues a year; somewhere around a dozen seems to be the mode.  Secondly, each issue only contains a limited number of journal articles.  Thirdly, academic writing is structured in such a way that many many pages of extremely dry and stale writing is needed to, in reality, say very little.  Academic writing is also meant to be “objective.”  Emotions are removed as they are unscientific and prone to bias.  I would argue that no substantive knowledge can really be gained about the suffering of underprivileged groups in this manner.  By removing the true nature of the emotions they might feel from journal articles, we are taking away the true nature of their voice and settling for a heavily filtered version of it that is more palatable to privileged eyes.

If academics rely on journal articles as their sole source of knowledge about social justice, they are in fact not taking in that much information; despite how desperately they might want to say otherwise, the fact remains that they are relatively uninformed.  Academics need to utilize social media to listen directly to those from underprivileged groups firsthand, to give them a real voice.  We need to partner with social media activists once the research is done so that they can spread our findings to the masses.  If the masses are completely unaware of our social justice research, what really is the point of doing it in the first place?  The bottom line is that we need to begin to work together; being that us academics are the ones in positions of privilege and power, the brunt of responsibility falls upon us to do so.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know several activists without formal degrees in social justice.  People outside the academic realm.  I can say with 100% confidence that they know much more and are more in touch with the issues than most academics.  There is a big difference between these people and so many academics.  Activists who are heavy users of social media, they are reading about and discussing the issues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Activism is their life.  It’s not a job nor a career to them; it is every fabric of their being; it is most of what they read about and most of what they care about.  What they read is emotional and written with passion, not the stale writing so common in peer-reviewed journal articles.  They read about human suffering in a manner that no journal article could ever hope to convey.  It was people like this that organized this civil rights revolution; they were the catalysts, not us academics.  They had their finger on the pulse; they knew how others were feeling; and most importantly, they know that now is the time.

To the likely dismay of many in my field, I can say that most of what I have learned about oppression and social justice did not come from the classroom.  I learned it from the internet.  I listened to the stories people were telling over and over again until their narratives were the ones that existed in my subconscious, not the ones from White male America.  This is what psychologists and potential allies need to be doing.  All too often, I hear from allies that they feel overwhelmed and do not know how to become educated on the issues or even where to start.  The answer is incredibly simple: find the right people to follow on social media.

Allies oftentimes feel awkward about asking the underprivileged people in their social circles to teach them to be better allies, and rightfully so.  Your underprivileged friends did not sign up to be your multicultural instructor.  They owe you absolutely nothing.  In fact, you’ve probably contributed to some of their suffering unknowingly; if anything, you owe them something.  Potential allies, do your underprivileged friends a favor and find people who are willing to talk on social media about the issues you want to learn more about. These social media activists are always looking for a bigger audience so you’d be in fact helping them.  Keep in mind though, they are the ones who are really doing you the favor. They are the ones who have accepted the social backlash inherent in openly discussing social justice; they are the ones who have put their mental health on the line; they are the ones who at times even put their personal safety on the line.  They do all of this because they feel that their message is that important; they feel that they have a social responsibility to inform others.  They utilize their platforms to spread their message because they realize that others in their community may not have a platform at all. By listening to them, you’ll know how to be a better ally to your underprivileged friend and individuals from their community.  You’ll benefit too; you’ll become a better psychologist, a better leader, a better teacher, a better doctor, a better police officer…etc.  Most of all though, you’ll become a better person.

The voices of the underprivileged have been suppressed for all of human history, but now they finally have a platform to reach the masses and let others know exactly how they have suffered and continue to suffer.  If you want to be a good ally, sit down, shut up, and listen.


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