The decade-long rise of social media has pushed much of political discourse online, and COVID-19 coupled with the resurgence of social movements across the country has increased the presence of social media activism in recent months. As a result, what Terry Nguyen of Vox calls “social justice slideshows,” have seen a dramatic soar in popularity. Though well-intentioned, these slideshows are harmful to productive discourse.
In an increasingly polarized climate, both elected officials and everyday people are finding it harder to engage in meaningful discussions about consequential social and cultural issues. Social media has exacerbated this problem by making it easy for people with strong political convictions to craft echo chambers that continually reaffirm their beliefs.
Much of the proliferation of social media echo chambers can be attributed to the reductionist presentation of information in social justice slideshows. By simplifying complex issues so that they can fit within 10 Instagram carousel slides, these posts tend to frame thorny policy and moral debates as a fundamental battle between good and evil, equipping viewers with the “correct” ideology through which to pursue desirable political ends. There is often no room for dissent or debate.
The underlying assumptions that guide these posts are that one’s political opponents have cleverly disguised their sinister intentions and must be exposed, or that those opponents have a pernicious ignorance in need of reform through education. The work of the good guys––who see the infallible and unalterable truth––thus becomes about wresting power from the hands of the deceitful and unlearned opposition to free the world from the clutches of corrupt leaders.
While a select few in power are in fact idiotic and wicked, the extent to which people believe an opposing viewpoint is evil is simply not grounded in reality. Because if everyone believes everyone else is wrong, who is truly right? If moral positions are absolute, then there is no need for open debate, so we might as well do away with public discourse.
The imposition of a singular belief system on a multicultural society such as the U.S. is dangerously antithetical to the American tenet of liberalism. It erases the beauty of our country’s varying customs, traditions, religious beliefs and ideological positions, and ignores our unending effort to create compromise and accommodations along those lines.
The idea that the individual knows what is best for themselves and must pursue their best interest independent of state influence must be held sacred, because from that belief stems our most crucial rights, like the First Amendment’s protections on speech and expression. To give those up in pursuit of a stagnant idea of justice would be to sacrifice the very liberties that have sparked some of the most effective protest movements and societal shifts in our nation’s history. To narrow the set of beliefs one may associate with would be to arrogantly presume that our own conception of a perfect society is supreme and unaffected by inevitable cultural progression in our country.
If we remake our nation such that there is no forum for disagreement, those at the margins of our new society will become vulnerable to the whims of the intolerant majority. The original pursuers of good will become the very tyrants they fought against. Oppression will not be done away with, it will simply be reimagined in a more frightening and final way. Some of the most consequential revolutions, like in America in 1776, France’s in 1789, China’s in 1949, and Russia’s in 1917 led to a restratification of power, and more often than not ended in mass poverty and death.
Still, there is a credible argument in favor of these slideshows, that rests in the assertion that select topics should be beyond the realm of debate. Racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are among those considered to be beyond the realm of litigation in a public forum. While I agree that such beliefs based in prejudice are to be unequivocally abhorred, building a public discourse that excludes them does little for the advancement of the body politic. When there is no longer room for debate, our society cannot challenge new ideas and subsequently develop more sophisticated ideas about life and governance.
Furthermore, the beliefs we suppress do not magically disappear when we leave them out of the mainstream conversation, they just find other and more insidious ways to be expressed. Consider the 2016 election; after Barack Obama’s election to office, large swaths of Americans believed racism had become a thing of the past, and our country’s firm denial of its existence allowed white supremacists on the corners of society to go undetected in the political sphere.
All it took was one candidate brash enough to stoke the hate and resentment of racists and our country was taken by surprise as he secured the highest office in the land. This problem extends to Yale’s campus. Our overwhelmingly progressive beliefs have pushed prejudice to underground anonymous platforms like Librex, where cesspools of ignorance and idiocy have expanded unchecked. One can only wonder what it would take to organize and galvanize those beliefs right under our noses.
Yet, these slideshows are still a key component of democratizing discussion. Social media gives a voice to the voiceless. It allows those historically excluded from traditional political debate to gather, organize, make noise, and push for change. It highlights issues that go without coverage in mainstream media. It even prompts new and creative ways of thinking about old problems.
Even so, the position social justice slideshows take up in virtual space is untenable.
I do not believe slideshows should be done away with completely. However, the way they are presented must change. The goal of these posts should not be to push moral positions onto viewers, instead, the slideshows should serve as the starting point for good-faith discussion, with both sides looking to learn from each other and build consensus. Instead of serving as a moral authority, the posts should be a touchpoint for further research and debate. Social justice slideshows ought to be a tool to advance liberalism, not stifle it.