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We value youth. There is greater currency in youth, far greater than wisdom, despite most people when they are looking back wishing they had more wisdom in life. Modernity brought us the era of the picture and since then we have become captivated with images. Pictures, first black and white, then replaced by moving images, and further replaced by colour became an antidote to a verbose society that now didn’t need to talk about it…it simply became a case of look and don’t talk!
The image became even more important when people turned the cameras on themselves. The selfie, originally a self-portrait of reclusive artists evolved into a statement, a visual signature for millions of people using it every day on social media. Enter youth! The engagement with social media is regarded the gift of computer scientists to the youth of today. I wonder how many people know that one of the first images sent as a jpeg was that of a Swedish Playboy playmate the ‘lady with the feathers’. This “captivating” image was the start of the virtual exchange of pictures that led to billions of downloads every day and social media storing an ever-expanding array of images.
The selfie, brought with it a series of challenges. How many times can you take a picture, even of the most beautiful person, before you become accustomed to it. Before you say, well yes that is nice, but I have seen it before. To resolve the continuous exposure the introduction of filters, backgrounds and themes seems to add a sense of variety. The selfie stick (banned from many museums the world over) became the equipment, along with the tripod, the lamp and the must have camera, with the better lens in the pursue of the better selfie. Vanity never had so many accessories!
The stick is an interesting tool. It tells the individual nature of the selfie. The voyage that youthful representation takes across social media is not easy, it is quite a solitary one. In the representation of the image, youth seem to prefer. The top “influencers” are young, who mostly like to pose and sometimes even offer some advice to their followers. Their followers, their contemporaries or even older individuals consume their images like their ‘daily (visual) bread’. This seems to be a continuous routine, where the influencer produces images, and the followers watch them and comment. What, if anything, is peculiar about that? Nothing! We live in a society build on consumption and the industry of youth is growing. So, this is a perfect marriage of supply and demand. Period!
Or is it? In the last 30 years in the UK alone the law on protecting children and their naivety from exploitation has been centre stage of several successive governments. Even when discussing civil partnerships for same sex couples, Baroness Young, argued against the proposed act, citing the protection of children. Youth became a precious age that needed protection and nurturing. The law created a layer of support for children, particularly those regarded vulnerable. and social services were drafted in to keep them safe and away from harm. In instances when the system failed, there has been public outrage only to reinforce the original notion that children and young people are to be protected in our society.
That is exactly the issue here! In the Criminology of the selfie! Governments introducing policies to generate a social insulation of moral righteousness that is predicated on individual – mostly parental – responsibility. The years of protective services and we do not seem to move passed them. In fact, their need is greater than ever. Are we creating bad parents through bad parenting or are people confronted with social forces that they cannot cope with? The reality is that youth is more exposed than ever before. The images produced, unlike the black and white photos of the past, will never fade away. Those who regret the image they posted, can delete it from their account, but the image is not gone. It shall hover over them for the eternity of the internet. There is little to console and even less to help. During the lockdown, I read the story of the social carer who left their job and opened an OnlyFans account. These are private images provided to those who are willing to pay. The reason this experience became a story, was the claim that the carer earned in one month of OnlyFans, more than their previous annual income. I saw the story being shared by many young people, tagging each other as if saying, look at this. The image that captures their youth that can become a trap to contain them in a circle of youth. Because in life, before the certainty of death there is another one, that of aging and in a society that values youth so much, can anyone be ready to age?
As for the declared care for the young, would a society that cares have been closing the doors to HE, to quality apprenticeships, a living wage and a place to live? The same society that stirs emotions about protection, wants young people to stay young so that they cannot ask for their share in their future. The social outrage about paedophiles is countered with high exposure to a particular genre in the movies and literature that promotes it. The vampire that has been fashioned as young adult literature is the proverbial story of an (considerably) older man who deflowers a young innocent girl until she becomes infatuated with him. The movies can be visually stunning because it involves the images of young beautiful people but there is hardly any mention of consent or care!
It is one of the greatest ironies to revive the vampire image in youth culture. A cultural representation of a male prototype that is manipulative, intruding into the lives of seemingly innocent young people who become his prey. There is something incredibly unsettling to explore the semiology of an immortal that is made through a blood ritual. A reverse Peter Pan who consumes the youth of his victims. The popularity of this Victorian literary character, originally conceived in the era of industrial advancement,at a time when modernity challenged tradition, resurfaces with other monsters at times of great uncertainty. The era of the picture has not made everyday life easier, and modernity did not improve quality of life to the degree it proclaimed. Instead, whilst people are becoming captivated by ephemera they are focused on the appearance and missing substance. An old experience man, dark, mysterious with white skin may be an appealing character in literature but in real life a someone who feeds on young people’s blood is hardly an exciting proposition.
The blood sacrifice demanded by a vampire is a metaphor of what our society requires for those who wish to retain youth and save their image into the ether of the cyberworld as a permanent Portrait of Dorian Gray. In this context, the vampire is not only a man in power, using his privilege to dominate, but a social representation of what a consumer society places as the highest value. It is life’s greatest irony that the devouring power of a vampire is becoming a representation of how little value we place on both youth and life! A society focused on appearance, ignoring the substance. Youth looking but not youth caring!
I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.
The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?
In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.
Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.
In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status? Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!
I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.
In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.
Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.
A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.
Last night over dinner and drinks, I spoke about race in the classroom with two white, upper-middle-class gay educators. Neither seemed (able) to make any discernable effort to understand any perspective outside their own. I had to do 100% of the emotional labour, and got 0% of the emotional reward. It was very sad how they went on the attack, using both passive and active aggression, yet had the nerve to dismiss my words as ‘victimhood discourse’. This is exactly why folks write books, articles, and blogs like ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’.
Worse, they both had experienced homophobia in the classroom, at the hands of both students and parents. Nonetheless, they had no ability to contribute to the emotional labour taking place as we spoke about race. Even worse, the one in charge of other educators had only 24 hours earlier performed the classic micro-aggression against me: The brown blur. He walked right past me at our initial meeting as I extended my hand introducing myself while mentioning the mutual friend who’d connected us because, as he said, he was “expecting” to see a white face. He was the one to raise that incident, yet literally threw his hands in the air, nodding his head dismissively as he refused any responsibility for the potential harm caused.
“I’m an adult,” I pled, explaining the difference between me facing those sorts of aggressions, versus the young people we all educate. This all fell on deaf ears. Even worse still, he’d only moments earlier asked me to help him understand why the only Black kid in one of his classes called himself a “real nigger.” Before that, he had asked me to comment on removing the N-word from historical texts used in the classroom, similar to the 2011 debate about erasing the N-word and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. According to the Guardian, nigger is “surely the most inflammatory word in the English language,” and “appears 219 times in Twain’s book.”
Again, he rejected my explanations as “victimhood.” He even kept boasting about his own colorblindness – a true red flag! Why ask if you cannot be bothered to listen to the answer, I thought bafflingly? Even worse, rather than simply stay silent – which would have been bad enough – the other educator literally said to him “This is why I don’t get involved in such discussions with him.” They accused me of making race an issue with my students, insisting that their own learning environments were free of racism, sexism and homophobia.
They effectively closed ranks. They asserted the privilege of NOT doing any of the emotional labour of deep listening. Neither seemed capable of demonstrating understanding for the (potential) harm done when they dismiss the experiences of others, particularly given our differing corporealities. I thought of the “Get Out” scene in the eponymously named film.
“Do you have any Black teachers on your staff,” I asked knowing the answer. OK, I might have said that sarcastically. Yet, it was clear that there were no Black adults in his life with whom he could pose such questions; he was essentially calling upon me to answer his litany of ‘race’ questions.
Armed with mindfulness, I was able to get them both to express how their own corporeality impacts their classroom work. For example, one of the educators had come out to his middle-school students when confronted by their snickers when discussing a gay character in a textbook. “You have to come out,” I said, whereas I walk in the classroom Black.” Further still, they both fell silent when I pointed out that unlike either of them, my hips swing like a pendulum when I walk into the classroom. Many LGBTQ+ people are not ‘straight-acting’ i.e. appear heteronormative, as did these two. They lacked self-awareness of their own privilege and didn’t have any tools to comprehend intersectionality; this discussion clearly placed them on the defense.
I say, 100% of the emotional labour and none of the emotional reward, yet this is actually untrue. I bear the fruits of my own mindfulness readings. I see that I suffer less in those instances than previously. I rest in the comfort that though understanding didn’t come in that moment, future dialogue is still possible. As bell hooks says on the first page in the first chapter of her groundbreaking book Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “…the vast majority of black folks who are subjected daily to forms of racial harassment have accepted this as one of the social conditions of our life in white supremacist patriarchy that we cannot change. This acceptance is a form of complicity.” I accept that it was my decision to talk to these white people about race.
I reminded myself that I had foreseen the micro-aggression that he had committed the previous day when we first met. A mutual friend had hooked us up online upon his visit to this city in which we now live. I doubted that she’d mentioned my blackness. Nonetheless, I had taken the chance of being the first to greet our guest, realizing that I am in a much safer space both in terms of my own mindfulness, as well as the privilege I had asserted in coming to live here in Hanoi; I came here precisely because I face such aggression so irregularly in Vietnam that these incidents genuinely stand out.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hanh, T. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperOne.
hooks, b. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
After reading about the backlash to Shania Twain’s proclamation that she would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Election (BBC News, 2018) I started thinking about the power that social media has over us and our lives. The irony of the fact that I’m writing a blog on the issue, which in itself is a form of social media, is not lost on me. Personally, I’m not a fan of social media yet I, like so many, conform to the pressure of having a facebook or twitter account because that is expected of us both personally and professionally but I wonder if it actually adds value to our lives. It is undeniable that social media platforms allow for greater connectivity between people but is there any quality in that connectivity? News events are instant but are they good quality? Messaging is easy but is it accurate or easy to interpret? Whatsapp or messenger tell us whose online and when but do we need to know that or does it just increase our anxiety when we don’t get a response? Facebook and Instagram document our lives for posterity’s sake but is it necessary to do so, I certainly don’t care what others had for dinner or what I had for dinner 6 months ago to be honest. Scarier still is the tech in our phones which recently allowed someone to tell me exactly when another family member would be home by checking their location on their phone. I recognise the benefit of such technology when it comes to checking on the safety of our children or loved ones but the cynic in me fears the abuse that such software is open to and the potential harm that can be done to others through its use.
Maybe I’m overthinking this or just stuck in the past but before social media we talked, we had physical conversations through which we learnt things, not just information that helped shape us as human beings but also the art of reading signs, body language, social cues and so forth – we actually made time for one another. These things cannot be learnt through text or messaging so how are the younger generation supposed to learn these things? Equally as important is the need for those skills to be practiced so that they are not lost. How many times do you have a conversation with someone who cannot maintain eye contact or who interrupts before you’ve finished your point? Is this a symptom of messaging which puts the pauses in for you and allows you to talk over others without actually doing it, after all messages are presented in a sequential order. That said, the creation of facetime or Skype may bridge the gap between phone conversations and physical ones and therefore enable us to continue learning and practicing these skills but how often do we opt for that over a quick text message? Let’s face it, we live busy lives and its quicker and easier to fire off a text than it is to schedule in an uninterrupted call. I have certainly been accused recently of favouring text messaging over phone calls but then I’ve never liked talking on the phone either. When you add into the mix, the lack of punctuation and the use of text talk the problems become more profound, firstly because this means that the art of writing appropriately is diminishing but secondly because it’s almost impossible to interpret the meaning of a message with no punctuation.
Furthermore, I regularly find myself in the company of people whose lives appear to be lived online and what I’ve observed is that they struggle in a crowd, they are socially anxious and often struggle with the fluidity of a group conversation. Maybe they would be that way regardless of social media but I do wonder whether social media is destroying social skills and how long it will be before the joy of an in-person conversation with like minded people becomes a thing of the past. Obviously, as with most things the simple answer is to find a balance between the two but in a world determined to make us digital natives, this is increasingly difficult.