Attack of the black squares: On virtue signaling, rebuilding and actual work

One of the things I thought would go away with our COVID quarantines was manufactured offense. We were taking care of each other, 10 short weeks ago.

But as we got used to our new normal, we slowly trickled back toward petty insults and cancel culture.

And then the George Floyd protests started. After about a week of protests, Instagram was taken over by black squares. Like this:

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#blackouttuesday #vidasnegrasimportam

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And so on. You probably get it by now.

Here’s a potentially unpopular opinion: Your black boxes don’t mean anything. Most of the people who follow you are aligned with your political views. You’re not making a political statement in a roomful of people who think differently from you. This is what is called, in the parlance of our times, virtue signaling.

People across the political spectrum do this. Scope out your Facebook feed. Your liberal-leaning friends are posting memes that say, “I, too, believe in liberal ideas! Don’t you believe in liberal ideas, also?” You know, things like “Trump bad, Biden good” and “Fund schools not military” and “More health care, fewer guns.” Your conservative-leaning friends are posting memes that say, “I too, believe in conservative ideas! Don’t you believe in conservative ideas, also?” You know, things like “Media bad and Fox News isn’t media” and “Climate change is a China hoax” and “Babies aren’t a choice.” The grammar on these memes won’t be much better than that, also across the political spectrum.

It’s a show we put on for our friends. And it’s assumed that if you post a meme in one column, you also align with all the other memes in that column.

It helps maintain our tribes, and it gets no real work done.

Have you ever been swayed by a meme you didn’t already agree with?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a long post about George Floyd’s death, protests and more. It was full of facts, context and nuance. Along the way I asked if his death was a figment of systemic racist violence — in this case, wondering if the violence itself was systemic.

What I’m not curious about is whether racism is systemic — not necessarily “are people systematically racist?” but more “I know the system is racist.”

Here’s a pretty good, short explainer:

Yes, there are black people who are able to break out of the system. Yes, there are white people stuck in the system. But it’s a system.

There are people calling for defunding police departments. That’s not a good idea, but overhauling some of them might not be a bad thing. Camden, New Jersey, did it in 2012 and 2013 and saw saw great results, at least through the first couple of years — reduced homicide rates, more police officers on the streets, more community trust. It was a department that couldn’t keep officers on the force and couldn’t keep crime under control, and it seemed to work.

Like I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there are some 800,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. The difficulty is, once you put on a uniform, you represent all of them. If one one-hundredth of one percent of those officers are simply jerks, you have 80 people who ruin it for everybody. That’s a wonderful ratio, but the (now former) officer who killed George Floyd and 79 others across the country make a bad name for the rest of them. Fair? No. True? Yes.

That’s what something systemic looks like, though.

The late great John Baldessari cremated his early work as a signal to himself to improve. Some houses simply have rotten foundations; you need to burn them down and start from scratch.

Others, you strip the floors, pull out some drywall, put in some elbow grease and give them some new glory.

Still others just need a little grout, a tile here and there, maybe some spackling and paint.

All three methods have a couple of things in common: The recognition of what needs to be done, and putting in the work to actually do it.

Let me say that again: you have to put in the work to actually do it.

Hard work is hard. And it’s work.

Funny that something that is hard and also work is called “hard work.”

We try to avoid telling the truth so often. “Social distancing” is really physical distancing. Remember alternative facts? Did we ever figure out what covfefe was? And apparently I’m no longer allowed to wear a Hawaiian shirt.

So much is coded.

But not hard work. There’s only one way to accomplish it, and that’s to do it.

This is a good time to reset. We’ve been talking about this a lot lately on JKWD. It’s a good time to figure out whether you need to burn it down and start over, or whether the bones are good and in need of some love, or whether it just needs some spit-shine.

And once you figure that out, get to work.


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