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  • Writer's pictureRobin Koerner

Black Squares Matter: Don’t Let Social Media Turn Virtue Into Vice

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

In one of my professional roles, Academic Dean of an educational institute, I have the great privilege of interviewing young applicants (mostly 15 to 19) for programs designed to develop their intellectual humility and rigor, and deepen their understanding of some of the most important questions in the humanities.

Many of the interviewees are the kind of young men and women who keep me hopeful for the world, despite all the madness around us.

I often ask an interviewee for an opinion that most of her friends would regard as “something between highly controversial and outrageous” – the kind of opinion she might think carefully about sharing (or even never share at all) with her young peers.

Recently, many students have responded with a wide range of opinions about identity politics, Black Lives Matter, and the shaking of legal and cultural norms following the death of George Floyd in the USA. One, whom I’ll call David, offered an opinion that touched on something that has been niggling me for a long time.

His “outrageous opinion” referred to Blackout Tuesday, 2 June 2020, on which tens of millions of people posted a black square on their Instagram and other social media accounts. His “opinion” was simply: “I’d feel guilty posting a black square on my social media.”

I have always instinctively and deeply resisted posting any of those meme-ish declarations or visual social media profile modifications that so often gain short-term traction in the aftermath of a tragedy caused by a malign act.

Examples from the last few years include “Je suis Charlie” with the Tricolore coloring of social media profile images, “#BringBackOurGirls”, “#MeToo”, “Black Lives Matter” and others.

I’ve been sufficiently exercised about all but one of those causes that I have written about them at length - but I have never gone along with one of the accompanying social media fads.

Those fads send a signal, for sure: but do they send a signal about the cause in question or about the people who go along with them? If the former, is sending the signal the same thing as taking a stand - and does it do any good?

Until recently, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my own refusal to engage in those fads, because I wasn’t sure where that refusal came from. Was it properly motivated, or was it just reactionary, arising from some cultural prejudice or quirk of my personality that had no moral basis at all? Had my upbringing made me a bit of a snob about such things? Was it something to do with the fact that I’m a gen-Xer who dislikes social media rather than a millennial who lives and breathes it? Could it come from being born a more reserved Brit rather than an outgoing American?

So when David told me he’d have “felt guilty posting a black square” on his Instagram account on Black Out Tuesday, I asked him, “Why?” Moreover, in the hope of extracting something that would shed light on my own instinct about the matter, I let David know that I was keen to hear his answer because while he’d have felt “guilty” posting that black square, I’d have felt “dirty” doing it – which isn’t a million miles away as a sentiment – and would be pleased to work out where that feeling comes from.

First, David suggested that people who do it are only doing it because everyone else is.

I pointed out that people do lots of good things because they’re inspired to do them by the similar actions of others – but that doesn’t stop those acts from being good or right. So where does “guilty” come from?

Then David tried another angle. He ventured that most people posting such a thing don’t understand what they’re posting about: they don’t understand the history that underlies the issue so they don’t really know what they’re saying.

That may be true in many cases, I suggested, but since David would obviously educate himself before posting the square, why, again, would he feel guilty about doing it?

David tried a third gambit: posting on social media simply doesn’t do any good.

Perhaps, I responded, but if it doesn’t do any harm, why feel “guilty about posting it? And even if there’s the tiniest chance that posting a black square on one’s Instagram could contribute infinitesimally to the cause of ending racially motivated injustice, then why not just go with it?

David took that point too, and got pensive because he couldn’t put his finger on the reason for his hypothetical “guilt” about the hypothetical post that he’d never make.

But I can – and there are more than one.

More Harm than Good

If you pass an accident on the side of the road, you are not required to stop. However, in some countries, it is illegal to stop at the accident and then not provide help.

I told David that and asked him if he could work out why it was the case? It took some hand-holding but he got there.

If you stop at the side of the road at an accident, and the drivers who are passing see that someone has done just that, they will naturally assume that help is being provided. This will cause drivers who would otherwise have stopped to provide help not to do so.

To generalize the principle: to appear to help while not helping is worse than doing nothing because it causes harm.

I ventured to David that the same principle applies to those one-day-long moral fads such as the posting a black square or splashing “#BringBackOurGirls” over your social media profile. Doing either one gives most people the feeling that they’ve done something relevant and positive (assuaging their moral discomfort) without doing anything to solve the problem. Worse, when millions of people are doing it at once, the impression is of the “bigness” of that reaction, providing a false sense that the problem is being solved because the attention on it is so great.

If you have spent many hours, weeks or even years, acting against racial injustice, sexual harassment, Boko Haram or the like, because the issue has moved you and you’ve paid a price in time, money or effort to tackle it, then you are absolutely entitled to post about it whatever you want. But in that case – and I know this from personal experience – you won’t be content just to use someone else’s few-word meme and then be done. You will need your own words or other modes of expression to articulate your passion, your thoughts, your work and most importantly your knowledge and substantial contribution to righting a wrong.

The Cause of Your Post Isn’t the Cause in Your Post

As already mentioned, one of the reasons David had offered for not wanting to post a black square in support of Black Lives Matter (despite what the interview revealed to be his genuine concern about racial injustice) was the fact that people are doing it because everyone else is, as if that’s a reason not to do so.

I’d countered that a good deed doesn’t stop being good just because many others are doing it at the same time – or even because you were prompted to do it by others’ actions.

That counter was correct, but it was beside the point.

Even if you really mean it; even if you have carefully questioned your motivation before posting; even if you’ve done hours of research; even if you’re going to do more than post that meme on social media – even if all of those things - you simply can’t get around the fact that the only reason you’re posting that thing at that time is because everyone else is.

How can you be sure of that? Because if everyone else weren’t doing it, you’d not even be thinking about doing it. That is the “but for” test that the Supreme Court recently used to declare illegal the firing of employees on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why does that matter, morally?

The matters addressed by these social media moral memes are all of great moral consequence. That is precisely the reason they exist, after all. Given that fact, if your reason for acting is that everyone else is doing so, then you are choosing to act on a weighty moral matter without the consideration that you claim it deserves and are asking the rest of the world to give it. Does that reduce the injustice – or could it be doing exactly the opposite?

If you doubt there’s an issue here, ask yourself exactly why someone who rightly abhors racism, for example, would post a black square without ever mentioning, let alone learning about, the Uighurs in China. (There is a good answer to that, of course, but how many of those posting the black square or corresponding hashtag arrive at their own morally grounded answer before they do so?)

If It’s Not Your Message, It’s Not Your Meaning

If an issue is important enough to have spawned a slogan that millions are jumping on, then it’s a movement, or at least close to one. Movements are big, unpredictable things. As one of millions of people on a particular band wagon with a particular slogan, you have no control over its direction or what it ends up promoting or causing. Will it stay true to its motivating ideals - your ideals - or will it morph to suit an favor an agenda of a particular group?

For example, will “Black Lives Matter” ultimately turn out to be a statement that saves the lives of black people? Or will it ultimately empower an agenda that is not supported by many of the people who are passionate about justice for black Americans? Some of their number have already taken issue with some of the policy positions on the “Black Lives Matter” website, such as the dismantling of the nuclear family, which would arguably lead to poorer life outcomes for black (and other) Americans.

When you post someone else’s words, you lend your support to all that they are used to justify and advance. You therefore take on a moral responsibility for what that movement becomes, because your support contributed to the power and influence it ultimately wields for a purpose that you will have no control over.

A matter as serious as those that generate these declarative memes on social media is a matter that is too serious to weigh in on without thoughtfulness and informing oneself of its complexities.

If you’re willing to say no more or no less than the slogan all your friends are posting, and happy to post their words without doing the due diligence to satisfy yourself that those same words will serve justice better than anything you would come up with after a little effort, then you have no way of knowing that you’re making matters better rather than worse. When it comes to issues of life and death, that is a very serious thing indeed.

Virtue: Positive, Cheap or Negative?

Glaring and great injustice elicits glaring and great virtue - but also, alas, glaring and cheap virtue because it provides an opportunity to get something of value without having to make the slightest bit of difference or having to pay the slightest price.

That “something of value” is the feeling of caring, of being right, of being good.

So what? Whether you intend it or not, you’re extracting from an injustice, perhaps even a death, a hit of righteousness and the approval of others – without doing the slightest thing to put right the wrong to which you’re drawing everyone’s attention.

In other words, you are ever so slightly benefiting from someone’s pain without providing at least as much benefit for anyone else - which would, at least, justify you.

That’s not virtue; it’s not even cheap virtue; it’s negative virtue, which is better called vice.

How can you distinguish between them?

Here’s a rule of thumb.

True virtue does more to improve the condition or experience of the one suffering injustice than it does to improve the condition or experience of the person speaking out or taking action against it.

Negative virtue does the exact opposite.

Consider that carefully.

There’s an upside for those who make statements of the morally banal that all their friends will see. If you’re one of them, can you say with conviction that the upside for the people you’re purporting to support exceeds the upside for you?

If not, you’re not helping them: with the best will in the world, you’re using their situation to help yourself.

Not being conventionally religious, I’m not sure I’ve ever quoted scripture in an article, but I realize that here, I’ve simply landed at a Biblical truth.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

– Matthew 6:5 (King James Bible)

It has taken me years to understand my instinctive refusal to join in these social media-based mini-moral fads. Now I realize that I simply wasn’t sure that I was doing more good for the cause than for myself. And that is why it felt dirty.

It was a good instinct. And now I have a good rule of thumb.

Working through all this caused me to ask myself a question: could there ever be a declarative band-wagon that would be worthy of jumping on?

I believe so – and it would have to satisfy a simple condition. The declaration would not make a moral demand on the rest of the world without making a demand on oneself. If I were to make it, it would be a declaration of a standard of, or change in, behavior that I myself could be held to. It would be a statement that would demand moral and practical effort from me.

It would be, therefore, a statement that simply couldn’t be made honestly if making it was the only thing I did.

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