Stuck in time: assumptions and change within ideological narratives

We live in sensitive times. It’s ironic to think that the most prominent voices on the internet promote inclusivity for all, yet having one controversial opinion means you can no longer participate. And it doesn’t even matter if that opinion was said ten years ago. It doesn’t even matter that things have changed significantly over the past ten years. One strike and you’re out. And there are no second chances.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

― Isaac Asimov

Based on: Dutch PM deems “Black Pete” tradition racist & Jenna Marbles quits YouTube & Is free speech under threat from cancel culture?

Sarah

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Changes in time: Associating Language
Changes in time: Associating Human Behavior
The times they are a-changing
Jenna Marbles & Dutch PM Mark Rutte – what do they have in common?

We make assumptions every day. A lot of it is an automated response to our daily routine lives. Like how you assume the bus is on time, or assume your food delivery arrives at your requested destination. But when it comes to people, assumptions can potentially be dangerous. In his book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how our emotions and worldview lead to assumptions about people’s intentions, which often could not be further from the truth. He writes:

“When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity, and suddenly, when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

When it comes to human behavior, it seems to me like we often assume because we cannot accept change: we get mad at the driver if the bus isn’t on time, we’re upset if our favorite artists don’t make the exact same music they did 10 years ago, and we’re devastated after a sudden break-up. We assume people behave and think the same, forever.

YouTube star Jenna Marbles recently quit YouTube. She was condemned for racist content she made in the past. Condemnation to such a degree that she felt so overwhelmed, she no longer felt comfortable creating. At the same time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged that the tradition of “Black Pete” will change, after 7 years of resistance. Rutte is seen as fickle and weak for changing his opinions…… Partly inspired by Gladwell’s book, I have some ideas on reasons why we’re so upset when it comes to people talking about racism (or other narratives for that matter, like feminism or sexism, but we’ll stick with racism, because that’s a hot topic). What do Jenna Marbles and Mark Rutte have in common? The answer has to do with our our assumptions, and our inability to understand and accept change.

Changes in time I: Associating Language

So what do assumptions and our inability to accept change have to do with each other? Well, it’s common sense that times change. From our understanding of the world, the language we use, to the way we interact with each other; technology, science, and media developments (among other things) keep altering our existence. Yet somehow it isn’t common practice to embrace that change. We have a hard time diverting from our beliefs, and as we grow older, we seem to lack the ability to acknowledge things are changing all around is, all the time.

Look at the meaning of words for example: just like the many waves of feminism, the meaning of- and language used to describe racism changed significantly over time, and we often go by our own personal connotations to the word. For some, it still refers to slavery during the 1900s. For some it refers to the political construct only. To others it includes individuals using racial slurs. Some see race through the lens of religion. And some groups include intersectionality and micro-aggressions into the mix. This is why you hear people say anything from “racism doesn’t exist (anymore)” to “asking people of color in your own country where they are from is racist,” to “systemic racism isn’t real,” to “if you’re offended by being called a chink, you just need to grow some thicker skin.”

I keep thinking people often believe in- or deny the existence of racism based on where they stopped in time. My mother and I see racism very differently, because she didn’t grow up with today’s understanding of the word (to be fair, it’s hard to keep track). The same goes for feminism: from basic rights (2nd wave) to mansplaining (4th wave); people disagree on what the word feminism should entail. Thus, some people say there is no longer a need for feminism because women already have everything they fought for, while others still feel underrepresented and continue to fight for change. Sound familiar?

I am probably displaying the ultimate level of agreeableness here (I am known to never pick sides. I’d be a horrible politician), but I think all of the above-mentioned examples have some truth to them, depending on the language we use to which we associate our beliefs. I mean, consider all the misunderstandings that could arise from incorrectly attaching meaning to someone else’s words, and assuming your associations are always right. Language is a very powerful tool; the fact that the meaning of a word has gone through a lot of change over time, and now encompasses a lot of different ideas, can make it difficult to understand someone else’s views. If, for example, you believe racism merely applies to things like apartheid and slavery, then it sounds valid to say that systemic racism doesn’t exist in current Western societies. That’s your worldview. But if you believe individual racism, like using a racial slur, is seeped into larger racial or systemic thinking, then it should be just as valid to say that racism is still very prevalent in today’s society, right? I feel like we should get to a point where we stop lecturing other groups about right and wrong based on the meaning of words, because I don’t think we’ll find actual common ground. But we could try to come to a common understanding that someone else may not think of the exact same thing when expressing a similar topic. Language, what words represent, and how we view them are continuously changing. We can’t just assume that our own convictions or associations are true by default.

Changes in time II: Associating Human Behavior

Another thing we can’t wrap our heads around, is how individuals change their minds or their opinions. For example, YouTuber Jenna Marbles recently apologised for content she made 10 years ago and is taking an indefinite break from YouTube because of the backlash she received from that content. But 10 years ago, a lot of similar content circulated the internet and people were not as concerned with racism the way we are now. It wasn’t at the forefront of people’s minds, and their convictions were different back then. Within today’s race and gender narrative, Jenna would probably never make that kind of content.

On The Flipside (see what I did there?), Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is actually beginning to understand that times are changing. From colonial slavery, to arranged marriages, to strict gender roles; long-standing Western traditions or beliefs have been subject to change since the beginning of time. In 2013, Rutte refused to give up the tradition of Black Pete, a character part of a traditional children’s holiday the Netherlands has been celebrating since the 1700s. This year, 2020, he has done some self-reflecting and acknowledged the experiences of minority groups. He now believes the tradition will change. He’s even having discussions with anti-racism advocates about race in the Netherlands. Ironically, he’s gotten a lot of hate for altering his opinions publicly. Where Jenna Marbles is considered racist, even though she’s no longer the same person, Mark Rutte needs to stick with his beliefs and stop changing his mind. Sounds silly doesn’t it? It’s like it’s no longer part of being human to have different opinions or to have a change of heart.

People change. Meaning Changes. Times change. It’s exactly because of our false assumptions based the (weird) preconceived notion that nothing changes, that we seemingly have the power to eliminate or condemn a person, regardless of knowing what their actual convictions are, or how they changed throughout the years, or how time changed what is acceptable behavior, or what language can or can’t be used. One assumption can ruin another person’s life. And what good does it do in the grand scheme of things? (no good, is the answer).

The times they are a-changing

The human strength, as opposed to other animals, should be our ability to reason and self-reflect. But sometimes our hard-wired behaviors still overrule our rational minds. We need to try and self-reflect on our emotional triggers and how they are linked to our assumptions about others, as well as understand that current narratives are no longer what they used to be. Someone’s political preferences or actions in the past are not an indication of someones actual or current beliefs or experiences, and we cannot possibly know how other people are impacted by something. If we can understand that, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to cancel Jenna Marbles, and we would have more respect for Mark Rutte’s capability of change. If we can listen to others and acknowledge their opinions, instead of letting our emotions get in the way, I think we’re on the road to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. And yes, I get it, it doesn’t necessarily solve any problems. But more humanity and a better understanding of others and the world around us probably helps get there faster, don’t you think?

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

- Bob Dylan

Li-Anne

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The circle of social media life
How change became something to deny
Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it

These days, everyone has an opinion about everything. Even not having an opinion means something. What’s more, online opinion influences the real world. It’s propelled movements and developments ranging from racism to cancel culture. In this case, both the Dutch Prime Minister and Jenna Marbles are prime examples of the current mechanisms that drive change and discussions.

The social media circle of life

It basically works like this: someone in the spotlight does something noteworthy. In Rutte’s case it’s taking a different stance in the “Black Pete” discussion. In Jenna’s case it’s doing skits and portraying certain characters for a wide public. Discussion ensues and everyone comments about what happened. Then, society changes and the public reviews everything and sees it with new eyes. Renewed support or backlash ensues. Rinse and repeat.

In the process, we all forget that change is human and totally normal, healthy and necessary.

But the cycle is speeding up, churning away at an ever faster pace through everything that’s happening online. It’s come so far that there’s almost immediate repercussions in the real world from what happens online. This discussion can definitely be fruitful. Because society changed and the Dutch who oppose “Black Pete” have gotten a stronger voice, it somewhat forced Rutte to flip his opinion. The flipside is, however, condemning people for the wrong thing. Because we’ve changed in what kinds of things we find acceptable to portray or make fun of in society, we suddenly hold up Jenna’s old stuff to these new standards.

What’s not entirely the same for Rutte and Jenna is their agency and representation. Rutte is a politician, representing a certain party and part of the population. People expect him to actively speak out about his viewpoints and opinions. Jenna and many YouTubers on the other hand first and foremost want to entertain their viewers. Since social media have become deeply personal, this means their outputs now reflect on their ideas and viewpoints which they probably didn’t consider when they created the content at the time.

The lines have become blurry. If your skit featured racist stereotypes, how much does that really reflect on you as a person?

How change became something to deny

It feels like we’re trying to collectively change how we view and approach things, by erasing past mistakes. That’s natural, we now have tools that allow us to get closer and have immediate discussions across cultures and borders. But in this whole overhaul, I feel we’re ignoring some very fundamental foundations that our communication is built upon. Former President Barack Obama said this perfectly in a New York Times piece from 2019:

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

Personally, I used to be pretty judgmental about things. When I was little, the “Black Pete” discussion wasn’t as visible and heated as it’s now. I’ve never thought brown or black children were this character either. So when I was in university and the discussion started to get overheated, I simply didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I dismissed it as kind of irrelevant, just because I hadn’t ever encountered any of the stuff mentioned by the protestors. But, I now know that your own experience and bubble are only part of why these issues exist. I’ve read somewhere that good habits easily persist. To keep bad ones alive, we call them traditions.

“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” - Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it

Believing to be open-minded and actually embodying it, are two very different things. True, on the one hand I see the flip-flopping of Rutte as being hypocritical. But at the same time, I’ve been through the same process and I definitely like where I ended up on the other side. Some of Jenna’s past material was racist and cringy, especially if viewed now, but everybody has her or his right to make mistakes. If we can’t make any mistakes, how will we ever learn? What’s the point of doing anything if we’re going to be held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong?

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight described it very aptly when interviewing Monika Lewinsky about public shaming and cancel culture. Basically, at the age of 22, which was when Lewinsky got ‘fully canceled’, we all do stupid things. When I was 22 I still had a lot of anxiety and behaved very immaturely. I’m happy that the stupidest thing I did at that age is not fully available on the internet for everyone to see and judge. I’d be mortified.

In another interview for the NYT, one of the teenagers says this about cancel culture: “It’s a way to take away someone’s power and call out the individual for being problematic in a situation. I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it’s just having a sense of being observant and aware of what’s going on around you.” This is a slippery slope to me. Who gets to decide who gets canceled? And how can we be okay with just taking away someone else’s agency?

To be honest, it’s also concerning myself a bit. I am, albeit in a much less widespread fashion putting myself out there as well, and it’s definitely impossible to never flip or do something thoughtless. I can only hope that the audience I reach will be smart enough to understand. Or just not get famous at all, that’s a good Plan B.

It’s all about getting closer, but not really

Social media are so bad for us, but we just can’t stay away. In 2020, this has once more become clear through plenty of events. Whether it’s a worldwide pandemic, ingrained racism or grand elections, there’s so much happening on social media, and so much of it has gone very far south. This video reminded me once again about some of the causes behind this.

Can social media still provide something good?

Based on: Vox: Why every social media site is a dumpster fire

Li-Anne

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And it was the death of common sense
Escape is futile. The search for a connection is real

“Helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” Apparently that’s Facebook’s slogan. In hindsight, I think almost everyone now realizes that’s most definitely not what this platform and many social media do.

We seem to all have become sheeple…

Even though this video of Vox is basically ancient in internet age, the points they make have only become more relevant. The cycle still exists – anonymity, division and extremism still propel most discussions on platforms. It made me realize a very important thing that I’ve always been missing on social media: the middle ground has no place online.

And it was the death of common sense

Pragmatism is a keyword in my life, something that I adhere to online and offline. That’s why I’ve never been really that interested in the community aspect of social media. It most definitely has to do with my own insecurities, but I prefer to pretend I’m special and not like others. So I remember when social media became popular during high school, I found it really silly that everyone was just doing the same things they did as usual, but suddenly got likes and attention. In my head, the word selfie was still reserved for the weird kind of people that took photos of themselves for no reason whatsoever.

How much has changed since I was in highschool. Oxford Dictionaries crowned selfie word of the year in 2013, saying that “the word has evolved from a niche social media tag into a mainstream term for a self-portrait photograph”. This development has led to many articles calling millennials narcissistic and prone to oversharing. I also really agree with something else mentioned in this article: “All of us adopt different personas that we can use in different contexts. Social media is where we become the people we want to be. It’s a grand stage, and we’re all actors playing different roles. There, we stand out. There, we are the stars of our own shows.” In the end, we’re all humans. We just want to see and appreciate the show, escapism doesn’t use common sense.

But I miss common sense, now more than ever. It’s the reason why I’ve never been really involved in any fandom, even though I am a big fan of anime and kpop, both known for their avid fan communities. I’ve always wanted to present myself as a rational and pragmatic individual, which completes the loop of me not posting much on social media. At the same time, many people in my social feeds clearly believe and actively voice their opinions and beliefs. It all seems awfully dramatic to me.

Escape is futile. The search for a connection is real

In the end, although I may think like that, it doesn’t mean at all that I’m above it. The desire for attention and fame is something I vaguely pursue, even though I know it wouldn’t make me happy at all. I write snarky blogs and comments because the opposite of actively voicing your beliefs is just making quips and only being half-serious about everything. And it’s working against me. I see all these memes passing by on social media that speak more to me than I’d like to admit. And they’re rote. And not funny.

“To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to ‘secretly flee’ (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.”

That’s exactly how I feel, and learning more about the mechanisms behind social media doesn’t make it any easier. I feel there won’t ever be a real stage for common sense, because it would be boring. And so much of our lives already is, we don’t need anymore of it.

On the other hand, there must be more people who feel like this. If the internet teaches one thing, it’s that you’re never alone in your opinions and feelings. Social media platforms have been focusing more on one-on-one conversations and connections as well. And it’s something I’ve found a renewed joy in as well. Especially during these times, nothing is more fun than ironically using #blessed on our real-life, in not #blessed-worthy situations.

It’s something very paradoxical in these times of digital communication, to look for a real connection.

Sarah

Navigate
Social media is a disease. And it’s spreading
Do we follow the media or does the media follow us?
Post avocado on toast

Why we should probably post avocado on toast instead of our opinions

"We're just f&*$ing monkeys in shoes." - Tim Minchin

That quote is a great reminder of our own limitations and insignificance. And it’s an important factor in acknowledging that we are flawed beings. We let emotional triggers lead us to what content we look at and react to. We may spread the wrong ideas based on those triggers, even forcing others to be on our side. Before you know it, you may be spiralling down the rabbit hole of misinformation, or content stretched so far out of context, you can’t even remember what you’re mad about. Remember when we just shared our boring lives to Facebook?

Social media is a disease. And it’s spreading

Recently, I, along with the rest of the world, have been following the Black Lives Matter movement very closely. I usually try to not get too engaged in social media outbreaks of breaking news, but a personal experience can quickly become a trigger for emotional involvement. Whatever my initial intent was for looking more into what was happening in the U.S. and the rest of the world, turned into shock really fast. I became overwhelmed by the outrage and the completely irrelevant (I suppose that’s a personal opinion) media coverage of it. There was no main narrative to be found.

It reminded me of the telephone game: a sentence is whispered into a person’s ear, who then has to whisper it to the next person etc. By the time it reaches the last person in the group, the sentence is no longer coherent and its meaning is lost completely. What started with the death of one man, sparked global unrest; first on behalf of the U.S., then on behalf of other minority groups, and by the time it reached the rest of the world, every individual on the planet had something to say. But it was no longer about George Floyd and BLM, nor was it focusing on racism. It was about peer pressure and not enough engagement from social media influencers. It was about “white guilt.” It was about shunning an artist who once wrote a song containing a racial slur. It was about looting. It was about people’s fashion choices during the protests. It was about anti-racists blaming other anti-racists for being racist:

  • “Blackout Tuesday is about taking a step back and educating yourself on racism in the United States.”
  • “NO, Blackout Tuesday is about silencing the Black Lives Matter movement, it is evil!”
  • “NO, Blackout Tuesday is about standing in solidarity with current events!” You are RACIST for using Blackout Tuesday!”
  • “YOU are racist for NOT using Blackout Tuesday.”……..

Do we follow the media or does the media follow us?

How do we disseminate the right content and distinguish right from wrong within a media landscape in which journalists have so much responsibility to maintain the status quo? How do we keep pointing focus towards the main narrative (and is the main narrative even good)? The problem with involving social media, regular news platforms, and literally everyone who has a voice (Vox Pop), causes problems for conveying “truth.” An excerpt from the book Rethinking Journalism reads:

"They (journalists) have to be socially responsible as well as attractive for the public. They have to speak and to listen, to laugh and to cry, be independent and neutral, be involved and take sides - and while doing all of that, uphold their professional values of reliable news gathering, and accurate interpretation." 

Including the voice of regular citizens to regain people’s trust in the media has increased significantly, but how does that weigh against staying objective? Do we follow the media or does the media follow us? And within that endless cycle, within all of these voices, what is still real? how do we know what’s really important if that is our only reference?

Social media is the intruder that created a blurred line between private and public, and news platforms and social media are not working together in harmony. Everyone can be outraged, or political. We can share fake news, influence others, create a divide between groups believing in different (or the same) ideologies, we can share our wisdom, our hurt, our anger, and all of this can enter mainstream news on a global scale, changing minds, confronting us with new evidence continuously, and spreading information from many different angles on a minute to minute basis.

"Water? What the hell is water?" - The Fish 

I can keep talking about how faulty our current media landscape is regarding the spread of information, but it probably won’t change anytime soon (and maybe it shouldn’t, if we don’t want to challenge freedom of speech). So why don’t we look at us for a moment. What are we doing wrong? How can we teach ourselves to post “better” content? I post opinions myself (like this blog). I get triggered too. It’s not always wrong, but it can potentially be harmful:

David Foster Wallace‘s story of two young fish swimming in water, not knowing the meaning of water, is (to me) a message of truth and solipsism within our media landscape. Our automated response is one of self-centeredness and using our own lens to interpret other people’s experiences. This makes it hard to distinguish fact from fiction, making actual realities hard to discover. It’s often due to a lack of awareness, in this case overshadowed by our own emotions and an overload of opinions. Apart from that, social media presents us with continuous threats. The area in the brain that processes memory “continuously compares the external world to the brain’s core belief of how the world should be. (…) When there is a discrepancy between the external world and the brain’s core belief, a threat occurs.” And that’s triggering.

Post avocado on toast

Core principles of journalism are truth and accuracy (fact-checking), independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. It is my humble opinion that, if we want to have our say and spread a message, we need to try and uphold those principles as much as possible, alongside journalists. Being aware of your beliefs and those of others, and attempting to use your emotions constructively, instead of letting news ignite your fight or flight response and/or retaliation.

If you’re triggered and you must post at all cost, look at multiple sources, look at the message behind whatever triggered you, and try to create something that can help the narrative along its pathway to more awareness. We need to be more empathic. We need to be more aware. If we can’t do that, maybe limit social media to more basic functions: Talk to a friend. Post avocado on toast.

"It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

This is water.

This is water."