5 July 2020
‘The people of Shavi knew that their words were like rags – wherever you leave them, there they will stay’ (Buchi Emecheta The Rape of Shavi).
Reading this short novel recently, I was struck by this repeated notion. Social media has been brilliant and terrible. Twenty plus years into this experiment into the democratisation of thought, we know that even at its best, social media provides opportunities for misrepresentation that can have negative impacts on the ‘consumer’. People present both the best and the worst of themselves, with little room for nuance or reality, so it seems. If these words written are like rags, there are good arguments for people being a bit more careful about where they leave them.
My relationship with the various social media platforms is dynamic. I rely on certain platforms to provide me with information on music and politics. But I steer away from getting involved in conversations and arguments (admittedly I occasionally slip, and immediately regret it!). I have complete admiration for people who constantly go into the social media battleground with a vision for something better. This is important work, to keep talking about issues on platforms where people form and share opinion. I just can’t do it.
The horrific abuse sustained by, for example, Priyamvada Gopal, following her critique of whiteness involved the expected gendered and racialised slurs along with death threats. Equally, Ash Sarkar, was recently attacked online, including death threats, following a Twitter post involving the eating of an orange lolly. What could it possibly be about these successful, smart and knowledgeable women that enrages people to this degree?
Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Feminist Thought, writes about the class, race and gender oppression that US Black women experience: ‘The foundations of intersecting oppressions become grounded in interdependent concepts of binary thinking, oppositional difference, objectification, and social hierarchy. With domination based on difference forming an essential underpinning for this entire system of thought, these concepts invariably imply relationships of superiority and inferiority, hierarchical bonds that mesh with political economies of race gender and class oppression.’ That the people in public life who experience the very worst abuse are women of colour should surprise no one. Labour MPs Dawn Butler and Diane Abbott are recipients of the most vile racist and gendered abuse, are confused with each other by people too lazy and careless to see that they are different people and even confused for the cleaner.
There is a lot of work to be done to change this. It is deeper, of course, than Twitter’s homicidal maniacs and careless words. Structural change that starts with equality, reparations, and rethinks our systems of government and public office seems like a nice place to start.