We love to jerk our knees, and the Internet has made it easier than ever. I myself did something of the kind in the last few weeks when I wrote a strongly worded public letter to the University of Manitoba Student’s Union over the supposed closure of the Gallery of Student Art. It came to light just a few hours later that there had been a miscommunication and a premature announcement, and the gallery was not actually closing. This is fortunate but of course it made me look like rather an asshole.
I look back on the letter, as I do on most writings of a similar kind, with a feeling of disgust and regret. Not because I do not believe the things I said—much of what I said is applicable even though the gallery is not closing. But it was ill-timed and poorly researched and I am not really in a position to speak authoritatively on the gallery, with which I have never been affiliated. In short, it was irresponsible, driven more by blind rage than any sober assessment of the facts, and designed more to loudly make my opinion known than to change anything. UMSU may be scum, but to some extent so am I.
Much as The Last Psychiatrist predicts, a fast news cycle has led to “intelligent” people reacting to meaningless stories with half-assed outrage that can easily be contained. I am not going to get involved in the GoSA, nor in UMSU. I wrote that letter in an hour before I brushed my teeth. The only thing that happened as a result of the letter was that a shitload of people visited the site, an UMSU rep sent me a noncommittal invitation to speak with him in person, and another UMSU person tried to add me on Facebook. I declined both (word to the wise: if you’ve never met me, don’t add me on Facebook and definitely don’t try to arrange a meeting) and for a short while disappeared off the Internet in embarrassment. That was the end of it.
I say this not so much to explain my actions as to provide a window on a certain pattern of behaviour in the Internet era. Something happens and is reported on by the regular media. Shortly thereafter thinkpiece sites like Slate and Salon get ahold of the story and their articles start to circulate on Facebook and Twitter. Then comics, memes, and image macros get made on bottom-feeding sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy and are circulated even farther because it takes less effort to read them. A certain type of person—you know who you are—posts their “thoughts” on the matter. Nothing happens. Then the cycle repeats with something totally unrelated and within a week the event that had absorbed all our capacity for thinking about political and social issues is totally forgotten. All the shouting and nothing ever changes—because it was never about change and always about shouting.
The problem is that most of us don’t know a goddamn thing. We’re only interested in making our opinions known, in branding ourselves as a certain kind of person. Nothing is important per se, it’s only important insofar as my opinion on it brands me as caring or responsible or iconoclastic.
This is why I am so embarrassed about my letter: our knee-jerk branding responses do not help anything and frequently cause a lot of harm. I don’t know anything about the structure of UMSU, the budget of GoSA, or arts funding in general, though I have a vague notion that artists ought to have a public place on campus to display their work. But I have publicly held forth on the subject and forced two organizations to respond to my stupid and ill-informed comments.