Picture a mountain range. As far as you can see, a multitude of peaks jut toward the sky. Now imagine that atop each summit sits some kind of human achiever, one of the greats, someone who has shaken up the way we live. You have carefully selected each game-changer and put him or her on a peak whose height is equivalent to the accomplishments, as you see them.
Suddenly, a cataclysmic event reshapes the mountains and leaves each peak at an equal height to all the others, so that each significant figure looks the same as the next from the vantage point of anyone standing in the valleys below. The discretion you exercised in placing each person on the appropriate peak has been wiped away.
Social media has positively contributed to a wealth of movements for social and political change. Examples range from the social-media coordination of the 2009 Iranian election protests to the growth of dialogue surrounding sexual assault on American college campuses. The good that strategically used social media can produce is undeniable. But it is becoming apparent that social media has another, more dubious effect; it is the force that levels the mountains.
In the weeks following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, a terrorist act that left 12 people dead, the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) quickly spread across the Internet. It was a rallying cry for support, but what else?
In his 2004 article entitled “The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Revisited,” racial education expert Herbert Kohl pulls apart the subtle censorship that has systematically diminished Rosa Parks’ actions over the years. What was actually a calculated protest by an intelligent and prominent leader in the African American community is frequently portrayed in schools as the frustrated outburst of an emotional and downtrodden woman. When we discussed the article in class, my English professor posed a crucial question: can anyone be a Rosa Parks? The censored version of history certainly implies yes, but in reality it is easy to see that not everyone has the capabilities or motivations to commit great acts of courage.
Which leads us to “Je suis Charlie.” Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks was heavily criticized for his op-ed “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” but he does point out an important truth that is frequently lost in the wake of significant events; extraordinary people, even in our democratic times, are still extraordinary. Every Facebook user who bloviates regularly about his or her disdain for Muslims is not “Charlie.” Rosa Parks was not every frustrated African American woman on the buses of Montgomery. The teenage demonstrators who gather in Iran, Ukraine and a dozen other countries worldwide to protest dictatorial governments, at risk to their lives, are not the same as the American teenagers who expresses opinions on them.
This is not to say that any of these people are inherently better than the others. That is not the case at all. But it is true that great change still requires great sacrifice. Great protests still require great effort. Great freedoms still offend some people. Awareness is not a substitute for solutions. And in the age of social media, as part of a generation with an unbridled amount of potential and tremendous resources at our fingertips, we have a responsibility to keep the focus on issues, not just slogans.