January 4, 2013 marks three weeks since the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The second deadliest school shooting in American history, it’s a large enough tragedy that I’m sure you haven’t forgotten it, but I doubt you’ve given it much thought lately. Truthfully, until sitting down to write this essay, I hadn’t. But it’s been three weeks since the shooting, and neither this nation’s gun control laws nor the way we treat mentally ill people have changed in any substantive way.
After the shooting, I followed the news from reputable sources, watched the body-count tick higher and sickeningly higher and then went immediately to Facebook and Twitter to see people’s reactions. I saw status after status and post after post about how this shooting was the figurative straw that had broken the camel’s back, the catalyst for real change. I saw people signing on to online petitions to TAKE ACTION NOW and to stop gun violence and maybe if they were thoughtful, to help the mentally ill and try to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. I saw posts with many exclamation points about getting Congress to take action and I saw a cunning bit of media criticism curiously (and mistakenly) attributed to God himself, Morgan Freeman. Judging by Facebook and Twitter, I thought I saw a burgeoning movement to get something done. I’m writing nearly a month later and while that visceral shock of seeing children executed merely for showing up at school has not worn off, nothing has gotten done.
This is not meant to be an essay about “modern life” but I bring up social media for a specific purpose. In these collectivized moments, people feel compelled to circumvent the traditional calculus of taking in news passively and give their own take over social media, to make their reaction part of the story. You could argue that everything has now transcended the old mechanisms of media, that we are all always part of the story, but for truly big moments the inherent interconnectedness of social media becomes an indelible part of how we experience life. Again, I read stories about a shooting and then immediately checked Facebook. I’m sure I’m not alone in this progression.
The problem is where we go from there.
Three weeks ago, stunned by yet another horrific tragedy, I watched all this and stayed quiet. Instead, I jotted down the date January 4 in my Google calendar. On that date, I decided I would check in on the progress of all those petitions you had signed, see where the grief and the anger had led. Not much substantive has happened. In fact, I’d go so far as to say nothing has been done.
Do not be surprised.
A peculiar quirk of modern digital life is that we mistake like-minded calls for action for real action and online petitions for a movement. We take strong public stands and then we let them fall by the wayside. This, by the way, is not a meant to be critical or cynical. Time is supposed to work that way, and we are not meant to live our lives constantly heightened. During the uproar about the invasiveness of TSA scans a few years ago, it struck me that few people would appreciate how blasé we were being about terrorism if we had talked to them in mid-September 2001. It’s equally unsurprising that we have moved on from gun control so quickly. It’s only different now because we can feel, with a few clicks, that we have contributed. That feeling is wrong.
The world and the media have moved on to other things, somehow ignoring those endless petitions and despite all those assurances that “this time gun control will really happen.” To which I say, NOW is the time to get something done about gun control. Do it now, when it’s not the first thing on our national political consciousness, when it has been usurped by the fiscal cliff and whatever else has come up. Don’t sign a petition online and feel like you’ve done something because you absolutely haven’t. That was all fine on December 14, when we were overcome by grief and horror and couldn’t think or act rationally, when we needed to feel together and safe.
Now, we need thoughts and we need real discourse. And we can have it.
If you think there should be gun control, and I certainly do, then work to make it happen. Maybe you think we need to fundamentally deal with the way we treat and stigmatize the mentally ill. Maybe you disagree with me completely about everything. I want to hear. I want people in power to hear. And I want everyone to stop thinking that a few clicks will make our problems go away.
Call your Senators and Congressman and participate for a second. Donate money. Write a letter, please NOT a form letter, but a real letter where you carefully write out your own thoughts in your own language and see if your real contribution is taken into consideration. If you want to be a movement, maybe try moving for a second. Write a check. Pick an issue and use your brain and convince people. Participate, because activism requires actually being active. And be thoughtful; we need ideas more now than ever. The Internet is a tool to reach huge swaths of people, but you need them to get offline to get anything done.
Facebook is the opiate of the masses.
Now put down the pipe and get to work.