Signs of the Times: An Open Letter to Orlando Soria

The rainbow flag, resurrected. (And center aligned.)

Dear readers (gay or not),

How much do symbolic protests — such as protests native to Facebook — matter?

***

I think it’s fair to say that I have a robust immune system. Almost without exception, things that go viral anger me. I spoke out against the Kony 2012 campaign here. I made fun of “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” mercilessly on Twitter. My first impulse, when all these pink equality signs started appearing on my Facebook feed, was to be annoyed. After thinking about it for an hour, however, I created my own version of the pink equals sign (using the cover page of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces) and made it my profile picture for one day.

As we speak, Orlando Soria’s flippant, dismissive blog post about this issue is going viral, chasing the tail of the original phenomenon. That is a shame, because he has no idea what he’s talking about, and his post is an object lesson in stacking one rhetorical fallacy on top of another. In fact, if I ever have to teach rhetorical fallacies to a class of writing students, I’m going to discuss this very post with them.

The only reason I’m responding to him is that his post raises (through no fault of its own) an important question, the one with which I began. We use services like Facebook and Twitter every day. To what extent should we respond to, or join, the occasional symbolic protests that catch fire online?

There is no single answer to this question. It depends on the issue, on the nature of the protest, and on how the protest is timed. One thing is always true: regardless of whether the protest is effective or not, there will always be an Orlando Soria around to disparage it. The lure of going viral during Round 2 is irresistible.

Therefore, before I get down and dirty with Soria’s absurd blog post, let’s measure the “pink equals sign” against “Kony2012″ and “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In the process, let’s establish some basic criteria for an effective Facebook protest.

1. The issue must be a controversial one.

Joseph Kony is not controversial. Everyone thinks he should be stopped. Therefore, the Kony 2012 video was not changing anybody’s mind. Gay marriage is a different story. One analyst on NPR said yesterday, quite trenchantly, that “there are a lot of people in the middle who don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about gay marriage. When they thought most Americans were against it, they were against it. Now that they think most Americans favor it, they favor it.” Seeing a pink equals sign in your Facebook feed sends you a very strong message: your friend supports gay marriage, and s/he feels strongly about it. It’s not just a question of changing minds, though this sort of symbolism absolutely does do that. It’s also a show of solidarity that heartens people struggling (in any number of ways) with the specific issue of gay marriage and the larger issues of homophobia in our country.

2. The protest must respect the wishes and the personhood of those most affected.

The problem with “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” was that the author was not, in fact, Adam Lanza’s mother. Since Adam Lanza is a real person with a real mother, this amounted to an incredibly insensitive and invasive act of appropriation. Yes, it is difficult to raise mentally ill children, and it’s vital that we provide greater resources and support to parents in this situation. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s life is impacted the same way, and pretending otherwise isn’t a useful fiction. The shooting spree was a personal tragedy experienced by a small number of people, and those people deserve our greatest share of sympathy and respect.

Gay marriage, once again, is different. In this case, as before during the Civil Rights movement, there is a strategy that combines shows of solidarity with a coordinated legal onslaught. Participating in the show of solidarity, and voicing an opinion about the case before the Supreme Court, is entirely in keeping with the strategy of the plaintiffs themselves.

3. There must be something that somebody can do.

Joseph Kony must be stopped, and somebody must stop him. Unfortunately, simply being informed about Kony doesn’t accomplish anything. The international community has been informed about Kony, at the highest levels, for a very long time. They haven’t been able to agree on how to intervene. Donating money to the filmmakers behind Kony 2012, even before their leader went off the deep end, was never going to be a solution. The futility of launching a “protest” was even starker with respect to “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The shooting had already happened. Numerous issues were at stake, including public mental health services and gun control. Furthermore, even if we do improve mental health care and outlaw dangerous weapons, we cannot be certain that some disturbed individual will not attack a crowd of people. All we can do is lower the odds. The only clear imperative that emerged from “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” was that we were supposed to feel extremely sorry for the author.

This protest, meanwhile, is aimed at a very specific group of people: The Supreme Court. I doubt it will sway any of the justices, but they are empowered to act for better or worse right now. When they do vote, the more conservative justices will indubitably produce long, pompous essays about The American People and how gay marriage violates Our Fundamental Understanding And Definition Of Marriage. Well, we are The American People. The point of this protest is to show everyone that such claims about our beliefs have no basis in fact.

4. The protest must be highly visible.

Following Soria, a lot of people will criticize the “pink equals sign” on the grounds that it’s just so easy, and therefore so lazy, to change your Facebook profile picture. The idea behind the protest has nothing to do with how easy or difficult it is to participate. (Of course, if it is easy, so much the better.) The point is to be visible. You don’t have to post a little comment about gay marriage, hoping not to be drowned out by a bunch of people posting pictures of what they baked, or what microbrew they’re drinking. The moment you merely show up on anyone’s list of chat contacts, you’re making a clear statement. That’s why it’s all about your profile picture. Remember this: the American flag is just a picture, too. Pictures have power.

***

OK, Soria. Now the gloves come off.

I’m pretty sure changing our profile pictures is going to have zero impact on the Supreme Court rulings, which is why I didn’t jump on the bandwagon right away. This isn’t an issue of public opinion, so I’m not really quite sure what function changing our profile pictures is supposed to serve. I guess it serves some sort of emotional purpose.

…and here we have exactly the kind of political savvy that one would expect from an interior designer. Nobody is trying to directly influence how a Supreme Court justice votes. We already know some of the justices will vote to protect California’s Prop. 8. This protest is about de-legitimizing the written opinions by disproving the “populist” reasoning those justices will use to defend their acts of prejudice.

“This isn’t an issue of public opinion”? How in the world did he come up with that? It was public opinion that led to the passage of Proposition 8, which was approved by a majority of California voters. Were it not for widely shared, homophobic public opinions, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Furthermore, as described above, the justices will in fact take public opinion into account when the consider the case.

“I guess it serves some kind of emotional purpose.” Yes, it does, Soria’s lame apathy notwithstanding. In fact, since this is fundamentally about the right of people to love whomever they choose — a right to freely express and live according to one’s passionate emotions, including by marrying — I would say that demonstrations of solidarity are pretty well aligned with the aims of the actual movement.

Isn’t this about the justices interpreting the Constitution and figuring out whether it allows discrimination against gays? And deliberating. In a room? By themselves? Alone?

It’s not clear to me why somebody who obviously lacks even a basic understanding of how the Supreme Court works should feel called to write about it. His framing of the issue is wrong, his description of the Court’s deliberations is wrong, and he’s wrong.

I certainly have no problem with all my friends changing their profile pics, but there is a certain sense of safety in it that seems to negate the point of the whole thing. I can sit here from my West Hollywood (adjacent) apartment and safely update my profile picture so that everyone in my (highly edited) group of (entirely gay friendly) “friends” can see that I support gay marriage (duh).

Yes, because we certainly wouldn’t want gay people to have unnecessary feelings of support and safety. More importantly, no matter how sheltered Soria may be, I guarantee that he’s less than three degrees of separation (just counting Facebook alone) away from people who are not living adjacent to West Hollywood, and for whom these issues are very much in play. This is not for Soria and his “highly edited group of entirely gay friendly friends,” whatever that means. (As if he could know the lives and thoughts of everyone on his Facebook feed, when he himself puts “friends” in air quotes.) It’s for the larger network, which is to say, the nation.

But our generation has a relatively lazy approach to activism. Mainly because we’ve never had any huge issues to get riled up about.

Hahahahahahahahaha! Why don’t you try just speaking for yourself, you over-privileged ass! Just because you’re not unemployed or serving in Afghanistan doesn’t mean that the whole world resembles you. It really drives me out of my mind when people appoint themselves spokesmen for, and critics of, “our generation.” Seriously, who are they trying to impress by making our lives sound better than they really are?

***

Now I’m going to skip a bunch of Soria’s paragraphs, because they’re boring paragraphs, and they all say the same thing: back in the day, protesting for gay rights was real. It was dangerous. It was meaningful and difficult. Nowadays, the kids just fiddle around on Facebook. 

Soria doesn’t know this, but there are critics who think that every protest, beginning with the rise of the “New Left” in the 1960s, has been more or less equivalent to kids fiddling around on Facebook. It’s all meaningless symbolic hot air. (See, for example, “Do You Believe In Magic?: Literary Thinking After The New Left,” by Sean McCann and Michael Szalay.) This new symbol, the pink equals sign, is neither more nor less important than the rainbow flag, which became the symbol of the gay rights movement back when it was (in Soria’s opinion) “truly doing something brave.” You can still see little rainbow flags up all over San Francisco’s Castro District. And it still means a great deal.

Then, just in case some of us are starting to dislike him for being apathetic and uninformed, Soria brings it on home:

The most heartening moments of this profile pic changing party has been seeing how many straight people showed up to support the gay people in their lives. My mom changed her profile pic, maybe yours did too. Seeing this felt good. Which I guess is the whole point of everyone changing their profile pics. Maybe it wont sway the justices, but it definitely gave people the sense that they were supported and loved. So yes, I do think it’s relatively useless as advocacy, but it serves as emotional enrichment for our community, a way for us to show we support one another. And I think there is inherent value in that.

Why, yes, Orlando, there is inherent value in that! Just look at all the bags of mail being delivered to the courtroom!

But no, Orlando, you can’t title your blog post “Changing Your Profile Picture Is Not Activism” and then end with a paean to that act’s inherent value. You can’t write about public opinion and the Supreme Court without a clue how the two interact. And while your calculated, rambling piece will probably win you a bunch more “friends” on Facebook, it fundamentally presents the reader with a false choice between changing one’s profile picture and engaging in other forms of activism. As if everyone who hangs a rainbow flag in the Castro never again goes outside to join a march.

So, until next time, this is Joe Kugelmass saying…

street fighter pic

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