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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Sarah Says: Did we kill debate?

Instagram announced a big change this February: It would begin to limit political content. I didn’t notice this change until a few weeks ago when many of my Middlebury classmates began to post pleas to circulate a text post instructing us how and why we should self-select back into being shown political content. I can understand why a change that seemed sudden (but wasn’t actually) could be alarming. However, I was deeply relieved. Instagram, the Facebook of our generation, was never designed to facilitate substantive political discourse. 

We have applied too much pressure to a platform that is fundamentally concerned with presentation. Our reliance on social media performativity has come at the expense of true political discourse and action. 

In the debate over free speech, this generation, and especially this college, garners extreme scrutiny. Among the fallout of Charles Murray’s spring 2017 visit to Middlebury, Middlebury became an emblem of all that had gone wrong with the belligerent left. Even The Atlantic and The New York Times weighed in on “the violent free-speech debacle.” 

This reputation hung over Middlebury when I applied in the fall of 2019. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Middlebury ranks as the 16th worst college for free speech. This year alone, there has been no shortage of intelligent dissections of the lackluster state of campus speech. That is a worthwhile conversation, but my objective here is something different. 

What strikes me most as I examine the pictures of those Murray protesters is the unified force of their anger. I cannot imagine myself or my peers engaging in a protest with similar fury or even in similar numbers. Contrary to my expectations, I found my undergraduate experience largely defined by political inactivity. 

Middlebury’s rural location makes part of this inevitable; we do not live in New York or even Burlington. Yet, how to explain the fury of  those students in the past? I’d like to think of our student body as a group of generally smart, generally engaged people. The problem, as I see it, comes from the lingering scars of the Charles Murray incident and the rise of social media activism. 

Posting online cuts off the opportunity for dialogue. We confuse posting with speaking and create our own echo chambers built on information that is often not verified. What displeases us is easily muted, blocked or unfollowed. 

With the eruption of the Israel-Gaza war, free speech has once again become a hot issue on college campuses. Often a boogeyman for conservatives and liberals alike, what remains less considered is how students chose to use their speech. 

I remember the pre-political Instagram. 

It was the spring of 2020, my stories were flooded with pictures, sourdough and chain online trends until, one night in May, all of that content was replaced. Suddenly my classmates and I began to post anti-racist reading lists, incidents of racism at our high school, information on nearby protests and infographics. So many infographics. 

Thanks largely to Instagram, we had been transformed into the participants of an online revolution. It would take me longer still to realize the “online revolution” is inherently oxymoronic. 

By virtue of its centrality to modern life, social media must now play a part in the revolution. Social media can be genuinely helpful in raising initial awareness. I felt this in the case of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the conflict in Gaza. The problem comes when we continue to rely on it as the main engine for political activism. 

Not only are political statements often confused with political action, but the absence of a political statement can also now sometimes be considered a meaningful statement. In 2020, I posted on my Instagram in part out of genuine feeling, but also out of the fear that if I did not post, people would assume I was racist. This kind of rhetoric is also seen in Instagram stories from this fall: “The silence? We notice,” a well circulated Instagram post reads, “So in 10–15 years when your kids come home with their history homework & ask you “how could this happen?” I want you to remember your silence.” These posts set a dangerous precedent: the absence of speech comes to signify more than speech itself or, to be more accurate, someone else's speech circulated on an Instagram story. 

Once we begin an argument over the “right” Instagram conduct, the activist mission has already lost. 

My biggest gripe with Instagram activism is the way in which it inadvertently stymies its own goals. In 1964, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message,” which also served as the first chapter in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” The idea that the medium in which a message is conveyed can be more important than the message is more self-evident now than it was in 1964.

Just think about your reaction when you get a news alert about some national tragedy, the same medium that communicates news of celebrity marriages and sports victories. All receive the same decibel and tone. Soon, they start to register at nearly the same importance.

So, what’s the solution? 

The English major in me wants to tell you to read more. Middlebury offers free subscriptions to The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post — each a publication committed to factual news and interesting ideas. I also recommend The Atlantic. 

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Reading, however, is not enough. Eventually, reading too can become an excuse for inaction. 

However, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss Instagram posting entirely. In the same way I’d like to take the optimist’s view of the student body, I’d also like to take the optimist’s view of the Instagram ‘warrior.’ 

I’d like to believe the Instagram posters are motivated by a genuine will to respond to injustice and by a desire to improve the world around them. Just as it’s easy to post an Instagram story, it’s easy to criticize the Instagram story without political engagement. Neither position is more virtuous than the other. 

As Middlebury students, short of a nationally organized student movement like the Vietnam War protests, we are unlikely to affect international or national change in our time here. That, however, does not make us powerless. Our energy and our action is best expended in our community where students have successfully organized a campaign to offer a professor a tenure track position and raised staff wages

What these two campaigns have in common is student action. In the spring of 2022, dozens of students gathered around Old Chapel to hand out their forms to administrators and in the winter of 2019, hundreds of students protested for staff wages. 

Yet, also note the difference in those numbers. Hundreds in 2019 compared to approximately a dozen in 2022. Our greatest strength lies not in our screens but in our actions. Imagine how we could agitate to improve for the students, staff and professors on this campus if we utilized the full extent of our power. 

It might be less glamorous, but if we turned our attention away from Instagram and to the community in which we live, there might be more opportunities for the revolution than previously realized.

Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.