awareness as theatre and the problem of chronic crises
Activism in these days tends to manifest in a few primary ways, one of which (perhaps the most important) is via ‘awareness’. Or, in other words, via the focus of the public on events or crises. Acheiving a critical mass of attention/awareness/focus is essential these days if the particular cause or crisis is to receive any kind of external support (monetary or otherwise). And so it turns (or attempts to anyway) every crisis into a piece of public drama. But like any kind of ‘artistic’ endeavor, whether or not your particular crisis is a hit with the fans/public, depends on a certain aesthetic that embodies a set of values. What I’m trying to say is that these days asking, ‘why isn’t anyone talking about x?’ is equivalent to saying, ‘why is Hamilton a hit, but not this musical you haven’t heard about?’. This is activism as zero sum game: or, activism within a capitalist notion of false scarcity.
As I’m looking over that introductory paragraph, I realize I crammed a lot of different ideas in there when as I initially conceived of this blog post, my intended topic was going to be narrower: I wanted to talk about why this model of activism necessitates that chronic crises will never receive the attention they need in order to be ‘solved’. This is the particular aspect of the aesthetics of activism as theatre that I’m interested in at the moment…
First, the notion that attention/awareness is played as a zero sum game isn’t unique to me. People very much do treat this as something scarce and mutually excluding. If you are paying attention to Black Lives Matter, then you aren’t paying attention to rape on college campuses. And so on. Since a lot of people perceive activism in this way, many tactics are created within this framework. Which is why, imo, so many of them rely on emotionally manipulative methods to guilt or shame you into ‘spending’ your attention on that cause/crisis.
But of course, the key, here, isn’t that ‘no one is talking about this’ but that a critical mass of individuals and mainstream media (most especially) isn’t talking about ‘this’. To a certain extent, this really is the progression most people seem to aim for: first get individuals to ‘pay’ attention, achieve critical mass then the mainstream media (MSM) will ‘pay’ attention, if the MSM pays attention that policy makers might start and if they start ‘paying’ attention, then perhaps Something Will Be Done.
This is great and all… if you’re particular crisis/drama involves actors that meet a certain aesthetic. An aesthetic very much informed and structured by the very same kinds of oppressive ideologies that, in turn, help manufacture the crises to begin with. We all know that certain kinds of causes/crises are more likely to get this critical mass of attention than others. And for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the crisis itself (ie, unrelated to the amount of suffering or harm caused by the crisis).
This is also a framework in which chronic crises are at a fundamental disadvantage. For the sake of this post, I’m considering a chronic crisis to be of the type where the situation is ongoing/long-term, requires a great deal of effort over time to resolve, and whose harms aren’t immediately, viscerally visible. I’m talking of the difference, here, between – for example – the Flint water crisis and the ongoing issue of anti-Black police violence.
When initially thinking about what made a crisis ‘chronic’, I first thought it might have to do with the systemic and institutional nature of the cause. But… in the case of both police violence and access to water, both a equally created by certain structural and systemic forces. Much of them exactly the same ones. To me, the real difference seems to be in the acuteness or immediacy of the negative impacts.
The Flint water crisis (and all the similar ones on many Indigenous reservations), has no real immediate impact. At least not visible, visceral ones. Beyond taking pictures of water bottles filled with gross looking water, the harm created by the water crisis isn’t immediately obvious. Sure, sure, we can hear tales about too much lead in the water and the resulting toxicity but isn’t ‘dramatic’ in the same way that a Black person getting shot by the police is. Incidents of police violence are visible and visceral. This is part of why many of us shitty non-Black people happily circulate images and videos of brutalized Black bodies.
Both situations are caused by a virulent anti-Blackness that is institutionalized and enacted on every level of society. Both require broad action to address the crisis. Indeed, in a very real sense, we cannot actually make a meaningful distinction between the material factors that have caused both the Flint water crisis and the issue of anti-Black police violence. They spring from the same well.
The only real difference I can see for why one gets more attention than the other is that police violence provides us with a new, dramatic instance every eight hours or so (although, the needed critical mass of attention is only achieved with a small fraction of victims). But notice that attention is sustained over time. People loose focus and then another Black person dies at the hands of police and ‘we’ all start paying attention again. I think this is part of why we are so easily able to treat an institutional problem like this as a series of isolated incidents. It isn’t that people care more about police violence and pay more attention to it in a consistent, ongoing fashion, but simply that another dramatic instantiation of the crisis is always around the corner.
With Flint, however, you can only look at pictures of dirty water for so long before your attention drifts. And so you check out for a year and then see some post on tumblr talking about how ‘no one is talking about this’. Maybe you’re intrepid and decide to look into how things currently stand with this crisis. And what you learn is that basically nothing has changed. Their water is still dirty and toxic. You see more pictures of dirty water. Maybe you hit ‘reblog’ but then your attention is pulled elsewhere…
The problem with bodies is that it gives us an easy way to quantify suffering. Police violence requires your attention because ‘five’ Black people were just killed. Has even one person died as a direct result of toxic water in Flint? I certainly don’t know from the top of my head. So the Flint crisis can’t be as bad, based on this easy calculus of suffering. Despite the reality that, like police violence, the Flint water crisis will have a seriously detrimental impact to the community for, very likely, many generations.
(Sidenote: my brain is suddenly struck with the notion that bodies have become the official unit of oppression/human suffering. The severity of the problem entirely depends on the number of (dead or harmed) bodies. The more oppression/harm units a crisis creates, the more severe the crisis and why it ought to be prioritized. While this isn’t necessarily a bad metric in some cases… relying too heavily creates this conflict between acute and chronic crises. Police violence needs to be solved right now because people are dying. The Flint water crisis can wait (or take longer) because even though lead toxicity has a huge number of documented negative impacts on human health, few people appear to be dying on an regular, ongoing basis as a result. This also has me thinking about the notion that death is the Ultimate Harm. The one Harm to rule them all. But perhaps I’ll explore that in a different post.)
And so we play the zero sum game of activism awareness. No, you can’t pay attention and care about more than one thing at a time, so you must pick one to focus on. You can change your focus, of course, but it can never be more than one particular issue or crisis. Except that we also continue to exist within an expectation that if you’re a ~social justice warrior~ you need to be aware of all issues and at all times: otherwise, you’re a failure and a hypocrite.
More to the point, if you aren’t constantly performing in public your awareness and activism, then you certainly don’t care. If no one can see you being in solidarity, does the tree make a sound? Sending, for example, a case of bottled water to Flint isn’t actually as important as being seen to ‘talk about this’. So it goes.