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Social Media, Public Space, and the March of Resilience  

2015-12-14 18:31:08|  分类: +看媒体 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Social Media, Public Space, and the March of Resilience

Yiran Zhang

Timothy Dwight ’17, Yale College

Yale University

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Social Media, Public Space, and the March of Resilience

Yiran Zhang

Timothy Dwight ’17, Yale College

Yale University

I. Introduction

Racism has always been one of the most ingrained issues that plague Yale as an institution of higher learning. But over the past two months, the Calhoun naming controversy, the SAE scandal, and finally, the email from Silliman Associate Master Erika Christakis have inflamed racial tension on campus and culminated in a university-wide protest on Nov.9, called the March of Resilience. Never in my two-and-half-year career as a Yale undergraduate have I felt a more acute awareness of being part of a collective consciousness – it seemed as if everyone put his or her private life on hold for an entire week. Classes and sections were skipped, extracurricular commitments were neglected, and even sleep and other basic functions of life took a backseat to the cause of racial equality and the creation of a “safe space”. Dinner table conversations and social media newsfeeds have taken on unprecedented homogeneity; everywhere everyone was discussing race. This paper argues that social media (Facebook specifically) and the protestors’ use of public space played a pivotal role in successfully lending visibility to the protest and the issue of racism at Yale. The success came in two components: firstly, the communal and democratic nature of Facebook promoted minority students’ expression of their individuality and solidarity, both of which are indispensable in the fight against racism; secondly, the protestors made good use of architectural structures on campus in organizing the protest, resulting in evocative images that strengthen their message.

II. Social Media and the Democratization of the Public Sphere

In comparison to social media, journalism is a more exclusive medium, lending voices to only a select few. Immediately following the Christakis email incident, Yale Daily News, Yale Herald, The New Journal, along with other major campus publications, published multiple news entries and op-eds regarding Yale’s latest crisis. While they certainly represented a fair range of perspectives espoused by students, including those that accused the administration and those that defended it, they were still filtered out of dozens of submissions by editors due to finite space. This communication structure is representative of the top-down model of public opinion suggested by Walter Lippmann in James Carey’s “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’”, and places the reader as a “second-order spectator” (Carey 63) in relation to the realities around him or her, “a spectator of the spectator” (Carey 63), trying to grasp the events through another’s narrative.

However, this one-way transmission of information is limited as a tool for political activism. John Dewey claims that “public opinion is not formed when individuals possess correct representations of the environment, even if correct representations were possible. It is formed only in discussion, when it is made active in community life” (Carey 62). He proposes that, “conversation is the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood” (Carey 61). Carey himself points to the lack of an “effective press” but also “certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued” (Carey 62-63). In other words, instead of a top-down communication model, political activism is in need of an interactive conversational mechanism allowing for a two-way, or even multilateral transmission of information.

Facebook fills this precise niche as a social networking platform. In groups such as “Overheard at Yale”, which every Yale student could join, each post serves as a democratic forum where everyone could voice his or her opinions in the comment section. One is not subject to the various rules and constraints of journalistic writing and has complete freedom to craft one’s expression however one will: the comment could be a few words long and colloquial in style. The structure of these forums simulates face-to-face spontaneous dialogue between a community of people and serves to boost community engagement, as one could offer input whether it is well thought out or half-baked. Yet this Ongian “orality” does not compromise the textual advantages of communication: multiple users are able to “talk” simultaneously without the fear of interrupting one another. Even those who choose not to comment often end up “liking” others’ comments, thereby indirectly voicing their own opinions through the input of others. These diversified channels of expression are equally accessible to everyone on campus; and there is always more room for more comments – one could never exhaust cyber space.

However, given the communal nature of racial discrimination, individualistic expression is not enough. Students need to be able to express their solidarity and sense of a collective consciousness along with individuality. Facebook offers just the channel to do this as well: hashtags. By including a word or phrase after the pound sign, one could link one’s post to every other one with the same hashtag on the social networking site, connecting oneself to people one might not even know. Indeed, several popular hashtags were generated in the process of organizing the protests: #MarchofResilience, #WeAreLoved, and most importantly #WeAreYale. By incorporating such hashtags in a very individualistic post in which each student voices his or her unique perspective on the events, one strikes a perfect balance between individuality and solidarity. This format enables minority students to accentuate their individual voices without directing attention away from the efforts of all minority students as a group; it allows them to gain collective power and leverage over the university while maintaining their individual humanity.

This delicate balance between individual and group expression has great significance in the context of fighting racism. A key mission for students taking part in the protest is to combat stereotypes manifested in racist costumes, racial slurs, and other forms of discrimination, which is essentially the act of reducing a diverse collective to one single generic type. Some common stereotypes include reducing black men to the idle and violent street gang member, Asian women to the submissive schoolgirl, etc. In order to combat these prejudiced preconceptions, each minority group has to let itself be perceived as consisting of unique individuals, not all of whom fit the stereotype. Yet this variety gains political transcendence only when presented in the context of sameness: these heterogeneous members share a common struggle in the face of stereotyping. Facebook, uniting its individual users in a powerful network through a single hashtag, is well adapted for addressing this purpose. On the other hand, email, the more traditional form of multilateral communication, is unable to accomplish such community-oriented goals. Email is private and acquaintance-based by nature - one could never access another email exchange between others by virtue of having similar content.

Facebook is superior to journalism for its bottom-up communicational structure, but also in terms of its inclusion of other forms of media. It is a platform on which TV, journalism, images, videos, and infographics co-exist, easily accessed through subscribed or shared links. This capacity for “remediation” (Bolter and Grusin 44) places Facebook users in dialogue with official and credible news sources and provides a reliable foundation for public discussion. Indeed, Clay Shirky argues in “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change” that social media depends on traditional forms of mass media in order to facilitate public opinion. He cites a famous study of political opinion by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld, who discovered that “mass media alone do not change people’s minds; instead, there is a two-step process. Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 34). Even though social media is the most effective at facilitating civil discourse, it still depends on more traditional forms of media to initiate conversations among users.         

III. Architecture and Pubic Space as Media

Don Mitchell asserts that a new electronic public sphere is taking over the old material public space such as agoras and squares with the birth of the Internet in “The End of public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy”. However, his core argument is that these old traditional public spaces are indispensable in the making of democracy. “…social movements must, and do, occupy and reconfigure material public spaces in the city. Indeed these movements are premised on the notion that democratic politics are impossible without the simultaneous creation and control of material space” (Mitchell 123). “In these arenas and spaces, counterpublics can be seen by other factions of the public. Without these spaces, ‘the public is balkanized’.” (Mitchell 124). He claims that the issue of representation always exists in electronic media, which tends to render “marginalized groups…even more invisible to the working of politics” (Mitchell 124). He maintains that the needs, desires, and political representations of an oppressed social group cannot beseen in the manner that they can be seen in the spaces of the city.

Indeed, even though social media have enabled minority students’ voices to be heard among the student body, it is ultimately physical confrontations in public spaces that prompted dialogue between the student body and the Yale administration. A group of students surrounded Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway on cross campus a few days before the mass protest to demand an answer in response to the SAE scandal; similarly, another group of Silliman students cornered Master Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard, accusing him and his wife of endorsing racism. Instead of communicating their thoughts through electronic media, they spoke directly in the presence of these figures of authority, with some of them ending up shouting in their faces. The comportment of certain students aside, these two incidents galvanized the administration to productive action, resulting in a series of forums, panels, and discussions between the student body and the administration. 

The March of Resilience is even more effective as a physical protest than the two smaller ones, not only due to its vast scale, but also its interaction with its surroundings. I argue that the organizers of the march either intentionally or inadvertently “manipulated” certain racially relevant buildings and structures on campus as their medium of presentation, which elicited a powerful response from administrators and students alike.

In the final stop of the protest, the large swarm of protestors congregated on cross campus, directing their chants at the Sterling Memorial Library, the cathedral of knowledge that they have appropriated as a symbol of the university. But the library represents the elitist institution on a deeper level as well: it also functions as a symbol for the university’s inconsistency in breaking its promise of racial egalitarianism. The panels above Sterling’s entrance (Figure 1) feature inscriptions of different languages and cultures from all continents: Egyptian, Assyrian, Arab, Chinese, Mayan, Hebrew, and Greek. This arrangement seems to promise a diverse world beyond its gates, like Yale’s initial promise to its incoming students: no matter what your race or background is, you will be treated equally here just like anyone else. However, once inside the library, one comes face to face with a collection of works by predominantly white authors, mirroring Yale’s heavily white-centered curriculum, norms, and culture. One becomes disillusioned by the discrepancy between the all-inclusive surface of the library and its exclusive essence, in the same way that some minority students at Yale feel betrayed by the university, where they discover they do not belong after all.

New York Times article titled “Yale’s Halloween Advice Stokes a Racially Charged Debate”, along with several others from different newspapers, features a frontal shot of Sterling Memorial Library’s fa?ade (Figures 2, 3). This all-too-familiar image takes on an unfamiliar meaning in the context of the race protests, presenting a Yale that defines itself as eclectic and tolerant but in reality falling short of its grandiose claims. Captured from the perspective of the students engaged in the protest, it represents how the students use the edifice to denounce the pretense and falseness of the institution that they have come to call home.

There is also an abundance of photographs showing the protest from the opposite direction (Figures 4, 5), most of which have Calhoun College looming in the background. This seemingly random inclusion delivers a subtle yet potent message. Early in the semester, Calhoun College came into the spotlight when Yale students petitioned to rename the college, as its namesake, John C. Calhoun, was a staunch advocate for slavery. In positioning themselves in front of a building inextricably associated with such a dark episode in American history, the students have placed emphasis on the fact that institutional racism has been a longstanding and deep-seated problem at Yale, dating back to its early years. This message serves to urge the administration to not focus narrowly on the more superficial issues of Halloween costumes or frat parties but prioritize systemic structural reform. The SAE scandal and Christakis email merely served as triggers to more entrenched issues such as minority faculty retention, etc.

On the other end of cross campus between Calhoun College and the Sterling Memorial Library stands the Women’s Table (Figure 6), on which leaders of the protest stood in order to guide the chants. They have chosen a potent visual symbol upon which to elevate themselves, as the table underscores the intersectional nature of protests such as the March of Resilience and serves further to weave the protest into a longer and broader narrative of civil rights at Yale. Created in 1993 by Asian American architect Maya Lin in commemoration of Yale’s 20th anniversary of co-education, the structure stands in sharp contrast with the adjacent Sterling Memorial Library (Figure 7) in terms of its projected vision for what Yale should be. Whereas the light-colored and rectangular library suggests white male dominance, the dark-colored and womb-like Women’s Table proposes the idyllic image of an institution where women of color study alongside their white male and female counterparts. However, on the surface of the table spiraling from the fountainhead at the center are the numbers of enrolled female students since the school’s founding in 1704, which up until 1873 were nothing but zeroes. Furthermore, its relatively minuscule size in relation to the gargantuan library implies that there is still a long way to go for women of color to achieve equality. By positioning themselves on top of the Women’s Table and facing Calhoun college, the leaders of the protestors connect an underprivileged past with an ideal future: as we progressed from the college’s founding to the modern day, this fight is not only about the emancipation of black men anymore. It is also about liberating black women, Asian women, and Latina women.

In appropriating these three significant structures on cross campus: Sterling Memorial Library, Calhoun College, and the Women’s Table, the protestors have successfully placed their movement in the broader narrative of civil rights at Yale in order to articulate their complex message to the university. They have illustrated the temporal transcendence of their cause. Furthermore, their choice of location has suggested the spatial transcendence of the protest as well - another visual advantage to choosing cross campus as their final destination as opposed to old campus is that the latter is an enclosed space while the former is an open and porous one. Old campus is a highly exclusive space, with its iron gates and locks. On the contrary, cross campus opens itself to the city of New Haven and even the nation at large. Given the fact that various other higher institutions across the nation such as Ithaca College and the University of Missouri were staging protests of a similar nature around the same time, this openness and inclusivity enabled people from every geopolitical background to resonate and empathize with the grievances of Yale students. By acknowledging similar protests taking place everywhere, the March of Resilience itself takes on universality. The organizers have arranged the people and the elements in a way that moves any live observer and lends the March to powerful visuals in national journalism and on social media.

IV. Conclusion

This paper has analyzed Facebook and public space as contributive agents for the March of Resilience at Yale. Facebook’s conversational and interactional design has promoted underrepresented voices, whereas its hashtag function allowed for the simultaneous expression of individuality and collectivity. Moreover, its inclusion of other forms of media in digital format provided input for any further dialogue on its platform. Facebook’s real-life equivalent, the physical public space, has bridged communication between the student body and the Yale administration. In choosing an open location and interacting with three significant architectural structures, such as the Sterling Memorial Library, Calhoun College, and the Women’s Table, the protestors were able to articulate their needs, concerns, and demands with more force and power.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David. Grusin, Richard, “Immediacy, Hypermediacy and Remediation”. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 1999.

Carey, James W. “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’”. Communication as Culture. Essays on Media and Society. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Mitchell, Don. “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy”. Annals of the Association of American geographers, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1995).

Ong, Walter J. “Writing restructures consciousness”. Orality and Literacy. London, Routledge: 2002.

Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change”. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, no. 1 (January/February 2011).

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