“12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson” makes use of the “Because X” meme in a way that is effective, for the same reason we should notice when it’s being used.
First of all, “Because Science,” “Because Reasons,” and “Because Ferguson” work. Who needs prepositional phrases, when you can just say “because”?
What is left out of these constructions is the argument, either because the reasons are boring, well known, or even unknown to the listener. The most important part of the equation is replaced with bluster. Writing “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson” sounds cooler and more relatable than the alternatives that would more clearly define the relationship between white readers and the violence of institutionalized racism.
Part of this headline’s effectiveness is the list format: as a former editor of a website, I can tell you that the numbers back me up on this: people do love themselves a list. We like the way it feels, like we can check these off as if they were on a “honey do” list, and have accomplished something. And while I don’t work for Google and don’t know exactly how their search algorithms work, the first headline is more direct and I believe, more likely to rise to the top of search results than the latter.
“Because X” can be used to back up either side of a well-known conundrum. Perhaps what makes the “because” of the matter so boring as to be usefully elided, is our sense of familiarity with both sides of the argument. Those who agree that cookies are delicious, and those who believe cookies are evil temptations, can both laugh at “Because Reasons” as a justification for eating some cookies.
Anyone who is invested in an issue, from “stand your ground” to teaching “intelligent design” alongside evolution, has an image of the other side that will fit onto a “Because X” meme. And since memes are distillations of inside jokes, they are a powerful shorthand for people who have politics in common. Chances are, the people on your Facebook page almost all “get it” if you post a meme like this, because you’ve probably already “hid” or stopped following the people you once knew online, who consistently demonstrated that they did not see the situation from the same perspective as you.
It’s the well-known effect of the echo chamber, which Facebook (and other social media, like Twitter, Pinterest, and Tubmlr) makes easy to create, and allows for selective exposure to the values you share. Follow who you like: people who post the stories and ideas that make sense to you, and with which you enjoy grappling or just nodding along to. Most people have a limit for the amount of grappling they’re willing to do in a day, so they find sources of content they trust: friends who will reliably post heartwarming videos of pitbulls playing with babies, well-composed pictures of organic food, and think pieces they already agree with. We already know enough about what a shitty state the world is in, thanks.
Balance is necessary, between bringing in new information and getting it to fit into one’s existing worldview. If the new info is too disparate, and constantly challenges the structure of one’s world view, it actually prevents growth of the individual. To be healthy, fully actualized people, we have to have firm roots as well as to reach for the stars. We need to be strong enough to withstand attacks on our values, but not so stiff that we do not alter our stance in response to new data. At the same time, without reassurance that everything we know is not total bullshit, that at least some of it is solid, there is no ground from which to evaluate contrary or novel ideas.
Having to find our own balance makes reading the news less secure than is ideal. There are still institutions, newspapers and magazines with trusted reputations. But more and more of the news we receive comes to us from—and is filtered by—social media. The job in society of news coverage is transferring from a small number of publishers, to a blogosphere of individuals. The work of determining what is trustworthy, traditionally performed by the publisher, has become the responsibility of the reader. At the same time, the “cloud” of your friends, in combination with social media, have taken over the job of filtering what is newsworthy. What would you do if IMDb and Snopes both disappeared?
We’ve had to become more savvy, and yet we still get tripped up. When was the last time someone on your friends list got taken in by a fake news story? For me, it was this morning.
I say all this like I know it, but this past week I had another lesson in how unreliable my Facebook friends feed is as a news source. I’ve been ignoring news alerts in my email inbox, heading straight for the pitbull videos and Upworthy links. Between the algorithms that Facebook uses, and what my friends post, I learned about Robin Williams’ death before I discovered what was happening in Ferguson, MO. A celebrity suicide trumps the police killing an unarmed teenager and then brutalizing the protesters. Facebook is more invested in my short-term happiness than in my growth as an individual. Likewise, content providers who just want 100,000 people to “Like” their pages right now, so they can make $1,000 in ad revenues.
Old media wasn’t perfect, either. There have always been broadsheets, pamphlets, and mullet wrappers, Page Six girls and puff pieces. I can be just as critical of my news sources whether they come from the Fifth Estate or the Fourth.
When bloggers get purposely vague by using constructions that remove the argument, whether because precisely describing what has happened is too boring, too wordy, or just not cool, man, then writers will have finally placed the last burden of journalism on the readers. Because news is not just what has happened, it’s also why it happened, and why it’s important. It’s not just today’s story, but the total reporting on a subject over the longer term. Those relationships and priorities are woven into what we write: from the headline and the lede to the prepositional phrases we choose to describe nuanced relationships among people and events.
Readers, having already sought out our own sources of news online and sustained them with our attention, must now come up with the very news itself, out of all of the op-eds, anonymous reports, blogging heads, and “fair and balanced” news outlets that are the remnants of journalism. The internet has set us free to read and believe what we like, but with freedom comes responsibility. We have to take responsibility for the content that we choose to consume, and how it affects us, and not rely on any one tool, whether it’s a newspaper or a news feed, to make those decisions for us.