If I Support a Cause, Must I Fight for It on Social Media?

Posted June 15, 2018
By John Degen

The last time I actually marched in a protest was a Toronto Day of Action organized in resistance to Ontario’s “Common Sense Revolution” back in the 90s. I still have Super 8 film footage of that day, showing happy, angry, determined, crowds at the march’s gathering point near the lake. I recall huge puppet masks depicting government figures of the day. I remember a sign saying “Mike Harris Eats British Beef” – it was the days of the Mad Cow scare, you know.  

My footage ends with a disturbing shot of masked “black block” anarchists pounding with heavy sticks on the windows of the Metro Convention Centre as the march passed by on the way to Queen’s Park. That’s when I turned off the camera. That’s when it all suddenly seemed less about legitimate protest, to me anyway. I have no doubt masked anarchists feel both that they have legitimate cause and that their actions are justified. They just don’t speak for me, and their methods don’t in any way appeal to me. Violence and intimidation, even for the sake of progressive values I support, are the last ways I can imagine ever changing anyone’s mind or making a broad social change.  I simply don’t believe it. And I do recognize that this belief of mine is informed by privilege. I have lived a life in which I’ve never felt so violently threatened that I was compelled to respond with violence. There is privilege in such a life.

What I remember most clearly from that Day of Action was a wonderful sense of community mixed with a terrible dread at the potential for violence – a potential that was then realized a number of times at later protests when increasingly frustrated demonstrators damaged property and hurled incendiaries on the grounds of the provincial legislature. I recall a colleague of mine, a fellow student from my University of Toronto days, arrested and charged for illegal actions he undeniably took (he was caught on camera – a television camera, not my little Super 8). I remember feeling terrible for him personally, and angry at him as well. What the hell had he been thinking? And what difference had he made, really?

Today, I have similarly conflicted feelings about how I might go about supporting causes and ideas in the arena of social media. Anyone who knows me online knows my one overriding cause is copyright and the ongoing legislative and social battle for the rights of creative professionals to own, and earn from, their work. I lobby on that issue. I lecture in classrooms on that issue. I speak in fora around the world on that issue. I have appeared on panels to debate the need for strong laws protecting the work of cultural creators. I have written countless op-eds, magazine columns, and blog postings on or around copyright. But what I don’t do – or don’t do any more – is fight for copyright.

The reason for that, I have to admit, is primarily exhaustion. My first online argument about copyright was probably circa 2003. What followed was a decade of wasted effort to change the minds of folks I should have much more quickly realized would never have their minds changed. And yet I found myself going back online again and again, wasting my time, wasting my family’s time, robbing myself of energy and initiative that could have been put toward far more productive work in the service of the cause in which I believed. I burned out, and I had to develop a new discipline that involved using the Internet and especially social media for three things only – spreading my own messages, avoiding fighting about those messages, and liking videos of dogs eating watermelon. I believe the online world is fantastic for amplifying otherwise unheard voices, for organizing and for spreading the word, and that it’s horrible for debate.

My many years of experience on the digital front lines convinced me, without a scrap of remaining doubt, that no comment-section battle, no Twitter fight, no lecturing social media call to action ever seriously moved the dial for my cause. Because those things were not really for my cause. They were for me, to satisfy my own ego. Of course maybe, by taking part in them, I at least kept a fire burning. Maybe I produced enough heat to keep me going that entire decade. But that fire took its toll.

These days, if I’m following along on social media at all I tend to be a lurker on the progressive hashtags I support. I have a moment of sharp-tongued weakness now and then, but I simply will not seriously engage, especially if things start to get heated. My muting impulse sits on a hair-trigger. My blocking finger takes no prisoners. And yes, I’ve read the Twitter threads telling me why this way of being makes me a bad ally for the causes I support. I’m genuinely sorry that I’m a bad ally on social media. But I won’t be changing that. Because I know where I do my actual work, and I see that it makes a difference, and for me that’s just going to have to be enough.