Building A Slower, Longer Fire Among The Digital Flares


Last week, 5,000 Tibetans flooded India's capital with flags and political signs to mark a strange anticipation of sorts. Exactly 99 Tibetans have now set themselves on fire as shock-and-awe protest of continued Chinese rule. Now Tibetans wait and wonder: who will the 100th loss be? And perhaps more devastatingly, will the world care? 

The Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans since, and the imprisonment and torture of thousands more. In 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's political and spiritual leader, fled into exile in India followed by over 100,000 Tibetans and established the Tibetan Government-in Exile.

A 28-year-old Tibetan, Lobsang Thai, asked about the moral value of self-immolation, told The New York Times: “I don't think it is about right or wrong. That is the only thing we can do without hurting other people. That's the best way to get the world's attention.”

At a time when tweets from Tahrir Square and Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi travel instantaneously round the world and online petitions motivate everyone from multi-national banks to school principals to Hollywood producers to behave differently, it seems unintuitive that Tibetans still see self-immolation as the last and only way to get graced with the witness of Western elites.

Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy organisation, has over 20,000 members. More people have more access to the proverbial megaphones of the new digital world than ever before. In many significant ways, the clamour for attention has been profoundly democratised.

And yet, maybe not today, but someday soon, the 100th Tibetan, likely young and promising, will rely on ancient fire rather than modern social media to express his or her outrage.

In part, it's a choice born of culture. Self-immolation has a long history, particularly in Chinese Buddhism, which talks broadly about “abandoning the body” in a spectrum of ways, fire being the most extreme. 

Then again, the desperate resort to using their bodies to get global attention all over the world. Think of Washingtonian Rachel Corrie, in her fluorescent vest, trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home. Think of Bobby Sands' emaciated body in an Irish prison. Think of the Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberian threatening to strip naked if war didn't stop. They all saw their physical bodies as the last, viable method of communication with the world. Digital revolution be damned. 

I think it speaks to something often overlooked in this volatile time of economic and cultural shape-shifting. The dark side of our new instantaneous digital world – a faster, sexier activism included – is that our attention span gets socialised by seconds while the pace of systemic change remains definitely slow and complex.

We are often lured into thinking that we've been effective by pointing and clicking alone, when the real long game of most of the intractable problems we face right now – climate change, global poverty, gender-based violence – also requires five, 10 and 100-year strategies, too. We can only hope that these strategies are robust enough to prevent people from resorting to suicidal missions for attention. 

Digital activism requires technological prowess and access, rapid response branding and wit, and savvy, sound bite-style storytelling. Structural, long-term change requires systemic literacy, vision and resilience. We've got to build diverse muscles.

This is not to romanticise lighting oneself on fire, or to pretend that the 99 losses in Tibet have somehow embodied a nobler, slower activism. It is just to point out that in a world where we often focus on the shiny, new power of online activism, there are still people resorting to the most ancient of attention-getting schemes in hopes of calling attention to an issue that has remained unsolved for six decades.

That paradox, I believe, says something important about the times we are living in, which requires both the optimism of the young twitterati and the wisdom of the various civil rights struggles that have led to the more just world those young optimists now enjoy.  

We've got to act instantaneously, but strategise slow and intentionally, too. We've got to remember that trending on twitter is not an accurate measure of the change we wish to see in the world. We've got to hold our leaders accountable in digital flares, but also build a longer, slower fire that communicates to people like those feeling desperate in Tibet, that they are seen and that we are in solidarity for the long haul.

Courtney E Martin is a writer, speaker and social media strategist based in Brooklyn. She is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network.

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