What BLM taught me about myself and how we are talking to each other

The work of anti-racism is to become a better human for other humans.
— Austin Channing Brown

Photo by Benjamin Finley on Unsplash

In the past week, all of us need to process a lot of emotions. It was particularly true to me. Besides processing rage at the system and empathy for those in pain, I also needed to process guilt and defensiveness triggered by social media posts screaming in my face and anger towards myself for not caring enough.

As a foreign national, I initially felt detached from BLM due to my ignorance. Besides that, the arrogance in me made me think too highly of my intellectual grasp of race. I had taken a philosophy class on Race and a few psychology classes about biases. As foolish as it sounds, I thought I was done with Race. I was one of the good ones. Additionally, as someone with utilitarian-leaning (caring about the consequence of the actions sometimes more than the intentions), I kept comparing causes to make sure I devoted my time and money to the most valuable causes. I was torn whether BLM made my list.

Normally a social justice warrior, I tend to be the passionate one guilt-tripping others for not being moral saints. Overnight, I experienced what it felt like to be on the other side, to be guilt-tripped. It felt awful. After scrolling through dozens of similar social media posts condemning people for everything they say or do that’s not 100% PC, I was exhausted, emotional, and had to force myself to get off social media. I was upset, not a productive upset wanting to act, but unproductive defensiveness and feeling personally attacked.

These posts eventually did their job for me. I decided that I did give a f*ck and decided to focus all my energy to educating myself about racial justice. The BLM movement, in a way, not only taught me to be more humble and compassionate, it also taught me how the way we’ve been talking to each other online is not working. I am afraid we are actively alienating those who we actually wish to communicate with. Below are four lessons I learned about how to be a better human for others.

The world doesn’t need my opinion

Upon learning about looting, my value for respecting others and pursuing effective action was challenged. I frowned at the news and rushed to write up a mini-essay on “when is violence justified, if at all”. Right when I finished, I realized how I exactly fell in a trap that contributed to a cause negatively.

Digging deeper from this instance, I became aware of my tendency to believe I know something others don’t that I need to deliver some gospels to them. The danger lies in talking too much based on piecemeal information and not listening enough. I have been too quick on forming half-baked opinions, not well-constructed thoughts.

There are enough opinions in the world. Everyone can have an opinion in no time. What the world needs is not more opinions, but well-constructed thoughts after deep thinking. If I don’t have it, then it’s better to shut up and listen.

Making a post doesn’t make me a good person

In her research “Moral outrage in the digital age” (1), Molly Crockett points out that social media outrage results in more personal benefit and less social benefit. Many people use a post almost to signal that they are the good ones. The problem here is people might consider that they have “done” their part while actually making a post does almost nothing to further the cause. A study showed that people are less likely to spend money on punishing unfairness when they are given the opportunity to express their outrage via written messages instead. Intellectualising isn’t enough, real change requires acting.

Long-lasting change requires detachment

When we are highly distressed due to empathy-overload, attending to our own needs becomes the priority (2). We lost the capacity to attend to others. Studies have shown that people tend to be more prosocial when they have gone through compassion training (focusing on a feeling of warmth and care toward a distressed person) compared to someone who’s gone through empathy training (focusing on feeling the pain of someone in distress).

To make a long-lasting impact, we are almost required to adopt a Buddhist approach to compassion, where we wish good things for the world from a detached stance. This can hopefully help with our mob-like tendencies to be totally enraged one day and forget about it only a day later.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Compassionate conversations, not debates

A general egoism permeates in society making us attached to our opinions, thinking this is what defines us as people. When others disagree, it becomes almost the same as questioning our core identity. I have seen many people getting into online fights as if their lives were on the line. Beneath the surface, both sides actually agreed. Even if they didn’t agree, debates can’t align us.

The majority of social media posts might do more harm than good today. They risk alienating others and polarizing already deeply polarized society. The message we are trying to get across will never reach and be accepted by their intended audience.

One slogan that stuck with me during a protest was “Racism is taught, not born with”. There isn’t a gene called Racism. If we can think this way, we can obtain more compassion towards individuals who are racists or ignorant (which is everyone on the planet). Instead of debating with people who have been conditioned to racism from a young age, we might be more effective inviting them to a conversation and hear their history with race. We can ask them questions seeking to understand and not preach as if we have moral superiority over them.

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

The past few weeks have been both emotionally and intellectually intense. I became fully aware of how much my racist self needs more continued education. I am grateful for how much BLM has forced me to confront myself and realize how much I still need to grow as a person to be part of the solution, not the problem.

  1. Moral outrage in the digital age
  2. Behave, Robert Spolsky, P545

thanks Vincent Yang for the edits!

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PM in the day, Philosophy at night. Wish to open, awaken, and strengthen minds.

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