Facebook and Amendment 1

Written in cahoots with 700-plus friends

| June 06, 2012
Eva Hayward
Eva Hayward
- Illustration by V.C. Rogers

With the passing of Amendment 1, my Facebook feed has been flooded with reactions.

Voter intimidation: One family held close as they cast their ballot while protestors yelled, "homosexual marriage endangers children!" Fear about losing insurance: An unmarried, straight couple is unsure how they will pay their medical bills. Even a glance at Facebook tells you that heterosexual and same-sex couples, transgender and queer couples and children have all been materially and emotionally affected by the vote against equality.

Local debates become national discussions through social media. Almost instantly, news is posted and redistributed across vast networks of Facebook friends, often accompanied with personal comments. We continually engage one another; the second is now an archaically slow unit of measure to describe the computer-processing speeds—nanoseconds (one billionth) and picoseconds (one trillionth)—at which we interact.

Through Facebook we share fragments from our lives: our likes, favorite pictures, political ideals and whom we love. But I don't think social media is a dystopian force that intensifies our alienation. Facebook has made information sticky by allowing us to trace the sources of the news—connection, not disassociation.

But how has social media shaped our political lives? Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously taught us "the medium is the message." He meant that the devices we use to get information—televisions, computers, iPhones—shape how we understand that information. The "message," for instance, of a newscast about same-sex marriage is less about the content than the change in attitude toward gays and lesbian, because the story is brought into the home.

Hunched over my computer, fingering a touchpad streaked with oily prints, I read about President Obama's support of gay marriage—Newsweek heralds him as "The First Gay President" on the May cover. The Newsweek cover troubles a Facebook friend; she reads it as conflating race and sexuality in order to mobilize racism and homophobia. Our first black president is also our first gay president: Race has always been sexualized, and African-American masculinity is often challenged. I "like" her comment.

The Facebook "like" is a remarkable technology through which we become part of the production and dissemination of information. Our "likes" are tracked and converted into automated ads. That tiny English word, "like," builds out agreeable associations: How satisfying it feels when your post is liked, a part of the friendly web of updated statuses, "likes," "shares" and "comments.

Another post questions the concentration of political energy in support of marriage, an institution criticized by some LGBTQ communities, especially radical feminist and lesbian communities. Attached to the post is Urvashi Vaid's "Still Ain't Satisfied: The Limits of Equality," in which she concludes that marriage equality will not give gays and lesbians greater inclusion into civic life—equality is not equivalent to justice. Just as racial and gender equalities have not resolved employment injustice or discrimination, nor will marriage solve homophobia and institutional heterosexism. The conditions of exclusion are left intact even though fairness seems the motivation.

I share, and add, "The rights and benefits of marriage should be extended to all people, not only those who choose marriage. If rights are not afforded to all citizens, then how is marriage equality anything but a reinforcement of the regulatory power of the state to normalize the form of family?"

A friend comments, "Why should we prioritize marriage equality over the urgent needs for reproductive rights, economic justice, anti-racist activism, anti-imperialism, immigration rights, environmentalism, and transgender equality?"

That person attaches information from the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey that finds 40 percent of transgender people in the United States do not have health insurance and experience double the rate of unemployment as the general population. They are four times more likely to live in poverty. Transgender people face near universal harassment on the job, and nearly half of those have come up against homelessness and eviction. Why indeed should marriage equality be the prime concern of national LGB organizations? I "like" this too.

Some Facebook users remind their friends that North Carolina's Amendment 1 is about more than same-sex marriage. Sponsors of the amendment intended to strengthen the Republican stronghold in North Carolina by forcing wedges between communities. In a swing state, the ability to fracture political alliances is necessary to win. Case in point. Predominately white pro-Amendment organizations helped marshal stereotypes that African-American communities are disproportionately homophobic, capitalizing on racial tensions.

Nevertheless, Facebook blooms with videos of African-American pastors proclaiming the immorality of same sex marriage. Frustrations mount, and friends post angry reminders that North Carolina law still allows first cousins to marry, and that the last time North Carolina amended its constitution on the subject of marriage was to ban interracial marriage. Across user pages, North Carolina is described as an incestuous backwater populated by Klan members, serving only to reinforce class divides, particularly rural and urban divides, while veiling the real forces behind the Amendment.

The quick turnover of Facebook, its real-time involvement and the shortness of tags and messages affect our conversations about Amendment 1. The fast-paced medium requires quick engagement. We comment on issues we only have a general feel for, or sometimes re-share without reading. Time is social, as is the lack of it. The heavy flow of stories causes today's news to hastily recede into history, archived only in our Facebook timelines.

Friends describe Facebook as a "time suck." Updated newsfeeds are so addictive that people place "Self Control" applications on their computers. Time is a nonrenewable resource, or so Facebook teaches us. Time is compressed and absorbed through nonstop interchange. Connections are intensified, and interactions move faster and faster. Starved for time, we all feel we never have enough time.

Time is certainly nonrenewable for transgender people without health insurance or homes, or for children in North Carolina afraid that their family is threatened. Time is running out on the 2012 presidential election. Like twigs and sticks caught in a spring current, social media rafts us together into new solidarities—holy and unholy—in the rapidly emptying channels of its newsfeed. Virtual time overtakes clock time to meet the demands of flexible accumulation—24/7 has become our greatest export.

We are now focused on equal rights for LGBT communities, but it seems to me that our next social justice movement has to be temporal justice: The right to unscheduled time, down time and creative time.

As for marriage equality, it is only a matter of time.


Comments (1)

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"The rights and benefits of marriage should be extended to all people, not only those who choose marriage. If rights are not afforded to all citizens, then how is marriage equality anything but a reinforcement of the regulatory power of the state to normalize the form of family?"

That is as brilliant an observation as I have ever read on the subject of "marital rights". I've often been more than a little irritated that "you and I" can do the same job, for the same salary (work with me here) and I pay a higher effective tax rate simply because you chose to marry.

It's interesting to note that a (Republican!) state Senator attempted at one point to modify SB 514 to read, effectively, that marriage is the province of God and the state should just get out of the marriage business altogether. (Ironically, the proposed amendment is listed as "A1".) The amendment was defeated, obviously, and went on to be presented in the form we came to know and vote on.

But as easy as it is to demonize the strategy of driving a wedge between voting blocs, it's important to recognize that these groups didn't create these divides; they were already there. NOM, et. al. simply used them against us to achieve their own ends. This is especially true of the "rural/urban" divide -- as one look at the A1 voting map will tell you.

Is social media a key factor in eliminating the fault lines in our society? Or does it simply serve to make them more volatile, more active? How many tweets/comments/stories are broadcast to the network without any vetting or research? How many of those are taken on faith by the ones to whom they are shared (and re-shared, and shared again)? How much thought goes into the content? (How many times is Wikipedia cited as an authoritative source?)

Ultimately, social media will only ever be as good as its users. It played a major role in last year's Arab Spring that brought about the (relatively) bloodless removal of two despotic rulers. It also played a major role in last year's London riots which brought about widespread destruction and misery. It brought down at least one member of Congress (who, in all fairness, probably needed to be brought down).

Time is indeed a non-renewable resource, but do we really conserve that resource when we use that nanosecond it takes to hit the Submit button and send forth information with potentially grave consequences without a millisecond's thought? And will the time required to repair the damage done by an ill-considered comment or post exceed the time it would have taken to check the facts before publishing a reaction? Where is the point of diminishing return? There is no "cool down" period required before publishing a blog post (or a comment on one).

In the end, the immediate gratification of "real time" publication doesn't help us come to grips with the idea that societal change requires generations to achieve. Pressing the "Submit" button on a change request to the mores and attitudes of the world has a response time measured in lifetimes, not clock cycles. And while we as individuals are only granted a few short years, Time itself will go on long after we expire. All we can do with our allocation of time is the Next Right Thing, and hope that those who follow us will be a little better for it and a little closer to the human race we can be.

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Posted by Mojo on 06/14/2012 at 10:34 AM
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