Friday, February 1, 2013

Sign, Click, and Feel Good

When is the last time you watched a documentary and were inspired to make a meaningful lasting change? After watching Bowling for Columbine did you sell your guns, call your senators demanding for gun control measures, and write a check to support a local agency that serves at-risk teens? After watching Food Inc. did you start your own garden, shop from local farmers, and eschew any form of pre-packaged food made by an agri-business? 

If you made changes, were any of them changes that you sustained?

Probably not.

I recently watched and fell in love with the luscious and beautiful film Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. It didn't make me write a check to support Tsunami victims. It didn't make me board a plane for Japan to help survivors heal and rebuild their lives. It didn't inspire me to take any meaningful action that an outsider can observe, measure, and document.

Documentaries are an art form that stimulate us to have an emotional response about the human experience. They document history and teach us about it. They don't stimulate us--at least very many of us--to do anything. They stimulate us to feel something. When done well, the art form of a documentary exposes us to a new part of the human experience. In revealing something new about the world, we reveal something new within ourselves. 

I love documentaries as an art form. I love exposing myself to new parts of the human experience. I love discovering new parts of my own experience that were opened and exposed by my interaction with the documentary. 

I don't, however, confuse this with action, behavior change, or social change.

Some social movements have adopted part of the art form of documentary film making into their efforts to bring about social change. Media-rich websites, replete with deeply emotional and personal clips, tug at our hearts and exposes us to a previously hidden part of the human experience. We're encouraged to sign a petition, which we do, because we feel bad to see someone's pain. We feel better when we've signed that petition because we've done something were told makes that poor suffering person feel better.

Then we move on. For most, our behaviors don't change. For most, our inner beliefs about the world don't change. We've watched a short documentary about someone's pain. We've alleviated that pain by signing a petition. The transaction is over.

That doesn't make things get better. No matter how much we want to think that having an emotional experience makes things better, it doesn't. We need to couple emotional experiences with meaningful and observable change.

Dan Savage has a bee in his bonnet. His swarming bonnet allows us an opportunity to learn the perils of substituting an emotional experience for measurable behavior change.

The It Gets Better project started with personal, often fascinating, and sometimes moving videos in which people shared their personal experiences of pain and transformation. The project rapidly took off and now represents a veritable who's who of progressive (and increasingly mainstream) social thought. President Barack Obama, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the entire congressional delegation from Massachusetts (with the except of former Senator Scott Brown), Ellen Degeneres, the Gap, Disney, the country of Finland, and of course, Canada have all made clips. 

Almost without exception, these clips are mini-documantaries about the plight of the suffering and suicidal LGBTQ teen. The general messages communicated and nearly all the same: We know your life sucks now. We promise, it won't suck later. Just wait and you'll see. It get's better.

Countless viewers have been exposed to these messages. Many watch the videos and have a deeply emotional experience--one purpose of a documentary film. Many are educated to the plight of (some) teens. The It Gets Better website offers a helpful button that you an click on and take a pledge to make things better. Does pledging translate into meaningful and observable action, or does it amount to a quick soothing of an emotional experience triggered by hearing stories about the suffering of another?

As evidenced by the 49ers debacle, some make It Gets Better films for another agenda: public relations, sales, or garnering more votes. Watching a documentary doesn't in-and-of-itself provide an outlet for meaningful social change. We are learning now that making the documentary also doesn't necessarily represent the film-makers true views or represent any type of social change effort.

As people interested in social change, we cannot simply sit in our arm chairs at our computers signing petitions or walk through city streets with our smart phones retweeting political messages. 

It's just simply not enough.

Saying it gets better doesn't actually make things better. Saying you support inclusive scouting doesn't actually make scouting inclusive.

Action is needed. Direct, measurable, demonstrable action.

See a kid being bullied? Say something. Say something directly to the bully. Hear someone telling a racist, sexist, abelist, or homonegative joke? Tell them it is wrong. Teach classes to children to resist bullying. Teach your children that it is wrong to bully and demean people for being different than their world view. Look deep within yourself and discover your own racism, sexism, abelism, and homonegativity. Speak up and demand action when you discover institutionalized discrimination in action. Demand that your company, your city, your state, and your country have meaningful and enforceable anti-discrimination laws.

Feeling bad isn't enough. You actually have to do something.

Get to it.

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