I want to spend a little time today talking about online activism and the difference between, say, what the feminist blogging community is doing and what I will call “Facebook activism.” While I believe wholeheartedly in the possibilities of blogging as a form of activism (and that belief is even stronger after researching and writing my thesis), I see a disturbing trend of Facebook activism that is this off-the-cuff, reactionary sort of activism that tends to start with people who are understandably upset about a cause with valid arguments and then they invite everyone in the world to join their cause – many of them just wanting to feel like they are a part of something. Then all of these comments from anyone and everyone are posted in a public, searchable place.
Part of the beauty of internet activism is that it reaches such a wide audience and allows almost everyone a voice. But this is a power that, if you don’t know how to wield it and don’t think about the ramifications of your actions, can do more harm than good.
I am talking about a specific situation here (but I think this has lessons that are applicable in a broader sense). One of the teachers at my former school is up for tenure this year (I believe the board meeting is tonight), and a few of my former students who did not respect him or enjoy his class started a Facebook fan page to voice their opinions about this teacher. As you might imagine, this page has quickly deteriorated to unsophisticated verbal slams and unfounded hate speech.
Let me be very clear: I don’t know this teacher very well. I almost never interacted with him outside of auditorium scheduling and casting for shows (he was the band director and I was the drama director). I do know, however, that this teacher has not broken any rules or done anything harmful to any student in any way. It is a simple case of students disliking a teacher and getting riled up about his tenure at the school.
I have seen this before – students wanting to say something about someone and causing unnecessary pain by publicly voicing opinions. I won’t get into the case of this I saw in high school because it is still too heart wrenching and terrible for me to talk about too much, but let’s just say it was a similar situation, and being on both the student and teacher side of the desk, I can say with authority that these sorts of things can do more damage than you’d ever expect.
On one hand, I am proud of my students for seeing something that they believed needed to change and speaking out.
On the other hand, I am both disappointed and disgusted by their lack of compassion, foresight, and organization. This fan page was created in the heat-of-the-moment to achieve a short-term result without thought of the long-term consequences. I understand that these students did not like this teacher, but to put a public page on the internet that talks about how you don’t like a teacher and want him fired has consequences more far-reaching than the creators can imagine. (At least, I hope they can’t imagine the consequences, because if they did this with ruining his life in mind, I don’t know what to think.) If their group succeeds in their goal, this page could prevent this teacher from getting a job anywhere. All it takes is a simple Google search from any prospective employer (school or not) to pick up this page and he would certainly not be hired. And that has potential consequences for him, his life, his emotional state of being, etc. that we can’t even fathom.
I am not suggesting, by any means, that these students should not speak out. I am just saying that they should use their passion in more civil, productive, and private ways. They need to realize that what they put on the internet in public places can, in fact, ruin lives and they must (please, please) use this power carefully.
If they wanted my advice (which they probably don’t, but I know they read this blog, so I’m going to give it anyway), I’d say to take the page down and go about their post-high school lives. Fight responsibly for things that matter to you; don’t jump on any “activist” bandwagon without thinking about your actions.