Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Facebook's Red Avatar Could Hurt Marriage Equality

As the Supreme Court weighs in on Proposition 8, Facebook has been lighting up with profile icons of the red equal sign in support of same sex marriage. This, according to Mary Elizabeth Williams, is a “meaningful act aimed at those you love.” Her recent Salon article, In Support of Facebook’s Sea of Red for Equality, was in part prompted by email from straight friends, one of whom called switching to the red logo “a truly spontaneous gesture of solidarity.”

I am straight and I support marriage equality. And I, too, hope that wiser minds prevail in the High Court, undoing prejudicial propositions once and for all. However, switching a profile photo to a red avatar will not make it so. In fact, it undermines the effort by lulling us into inaction.

Born under a repressive Soviet regime, I learned the value of freedom and equality early. And when intolerance spread throughout my adopted South Brooklyn neighborhood, it meant joining a progressive City Council candidate who beckoned change. All volunteers, we spent months phone banking, petitioning and door-knocking across a district as large and densely populated as an average American city. And although in the end a better funded, more politically connected candidate won the race, our hard work was't wasted. By reaching out to gay and lesbian constituents, State legislators and regional LAMBDA organizations we paved the way for marriage equality to become law in the State of New York.

“The cynics are wrong,” writes Williams, urging us to change our profile pictures. Except there is nothing cynical about activism. In fact, grassroots action is exactly how the forces opposed to same-sex marriage consistently end up on the winning side. Sure, millions of dollars were spent on prized Washington consultants by both fronts. Yet at its core, Prop 8, like any other ballot proposition, is a democratic referendum advanced by the same kind of shoe-leather politics. And while progressive virtues gradually dissolved into avatar changes and other social media gimmickry, anti-gay marriage activists in California spent thousands of hours making phone calls and knocking on doors to collect over a million signatures—nearly doubling the number required—to qualify Prop 8 as a valid ballot measure.

Taking advocacy beyond Facebook is also good practice for organizing. Remember Occupy Wall Street? That also started as “a truly spontaneous gesture of solidarity.” At its peak, New Yorkers endured traffic jams, transit disruptions and rampant police brutality. This, I felt at the time, was the price of a movement that would eventually band into a truly progressive third party—one that would challenge the Tea Party on its own terms. But that never happened. As the group emerged from the comfort zone of social media, its failure to curb the influence of Wall Street showed that real reform calls for a clearly defined mission, leadership structure and representation—none of which can be achieved by pageantry or replacing a Facebook photo.

A red equal sign in support of equality is just as vacant as the picture of Twin Towers in rebuke of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Each September 11th Facebook turns collectively patriotic: dual light beams replace face shots and “Never Forget” status updates pop up all over personal feeds. But ask yourself, have these words and symbols ever eased the pain of families who lost loved ones, or helped war-weary veterans whose suicide deaths now exceed combat casualties in Afghanistan, or aided women soldiers now more likely to be raped by their male peers than killed by enemy fire? The gesture, as Williams insists, may indeed be "aimed at those you love." But it is only "meaningful" if you volunteer at a local VA hospital or visit a 9/11 first response worker stricken with cancer.

Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour raised the same issue with Daily Download's Howard Kurtz and Lauren Ashburn:
"What does something like this accomplish?" Woordruff asked. "I mean, when that many people are saying they agree, yes, it's kind of a referendum on what some in the public are thinking, Howard. But what does it do for the movement? I mean, do we know?"  
 "Well, since the issue that galvanized this is the Supreme Court taking this pair of cases," said Kurtz. "I don't know that it's going to change any five justices' opinions."
"Although there was a very funny cartoon," Ashburn chimed in. "That said -- of Justice Kennedy saying, can we rule yet? Well, have we checked in with Facebook?" 
The red equal sign, first adopted by the Human Rights Campaign, stands for the organization's grassroots advocacy, government outreach, organized rallies, education and fundraising. It is more than a fashion statement. But that’s exactly what it becomes when a society anesthetized by social media looses site of the real machinery of civics. Because if the Court rules against Prop 8, it will be too tempting to assume that the victory was due to Facebook icons. And if Prop 8 is upheld, my guess is all these red logos will switch just as spontaneously back to toothy grins and kissy pouts.

So instead of thinking up creative new ways to dress up your red avatar with Muppets, do what HRC members do: call your state legislators, call your Representatives in Congress and tell them that marriage equality is a basic right. Then call or email ten friends and ask them to do the same. And once you have done all that, use the red equal sign as a badge of accomplishment: “I called my representative and 10 friends. What have you done for equality today?”

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