Drawing of two people, one with an equals sign covering their face and their hand upraised in greeting, the other smiling with hands in pocketsBy John He

Volume XXXV, Issue 3, April 19, 2013

On the morning of Wednesday, March 27th, 2013, I woke up to a different world. As my head rested peacefully on my pillow, momentous change was happening. It had been creeping up on me without my knowledge for a whole day already, gradually gathering strength, person by person, corporation by corporation. Steadily it marched into our consciousness, shocking us out of our complacency as it boldly declared its presence in our lives.

A force to be reckoned with, it swept through the nation, toppling profile picture after profile picture. In its wake: the quiet serenity of the HEX#3B59998 world disrupted by a jarring red, never before seen on such a massive scale in this ceruleanormative community. The tide of change reached even the distant and relatively sparsely-populated Google+, wreaking havoc and disrupting the ordinary lives of untold millions of netizens, no longer able to stare at their own faces on their profile page or to distinguish their friends via picture thumbnails.

Later estimates suggest over two million faces down. Some say Facebook will never be the same again.

(For those who have deleted/suspended/ never created/do not frequent their Facebook account: I am referring to the widespread show of support for marriage equality, on the occasion of two back-to-back Supreme Court cases Perry v. Hollingsworth and U.S. v. Windsor, through the replacement of profile pictures with red squares embedded with pink “=” signs.)

That fateful morning, I rolled out of bed and logged onto Facebook. And as I scrolled through my Friends page and newsfeed, taking careful note of friends and enemies, I could almost hear the faint echoes of the Les Mis soundtrack ringing outside:

Red—I feel my soul on fire!

Red—The color of desire!

Red—the blood of angry men!

Red—a world about to dawnnn!

There were the early adopters who started it all, those who cared before it went viral, buried deep in the Newsfeed. There were the corporate opportunists who simply had to

improve upon the signs by replacing them with pairs of oblong products. There were the economical ones, who, not content with sacrificing valuable virtual real estate, put it to dual use, overlaying an equal sign onto their original faces/photos.

And there were of course the artsy ones, who somehow managed to make two rectangles look chic, and the boring ones, who just stuck with the good old equal signs.

Next came the progressive progressives, who posted “>” signs as protest of the inherent inequality of the institution of marriage. We are greater than marriage, they say. These are fierce activists who you do not want to upset. And they are upset. They are upset at the nation’s monomaniacal focus on marriage. They are upset, really, at marriage itself, that it is so inherently marginalizing and discriminatory, so structurally unprogressive. And they are not afraid to expose to the world these telltale fissures that once lurked beneath the surface of the seemingly monolithic front that is the movement for marriage equality.

Even the math-lovers joined the Facebook frenzy, ecstatic that arithmetic operations were now openly embraced by the masses of Facebook. They proceeded to put up “÷,” “∞,” or “+” signs as their personal way of express- ing enthusiasm. Perhaps the posters didn’t even like math and just thought it was clever. Or maybe there was some underlying meaning: the division of dual-nationality families caused by discriminatory immigration policy; the infinite potential of a loving relationship; a positivist defense of laws duly enacted by a legislature. Who knows? The wide array of symbols presented an interpretive challenge that would rival any posed by the most difficult Amherst College professors.

But it wasn’t long before criticisms started to fly: Witty and sardonic meme-enthusiasts shared photos of Anthony Kennedy peering down from the bench, with the superimposed text in all caps: “Before we make a ruling / Did enough people change their profile pictures?!” And of course there were the chronic discon- tents, who denounced the cheap “slacktivism” that animated the sweeping movement.

To an extent some of the criticisms ring true. Perhaps deep down, some just wanted to leave their mark, a personal statement like any other profile picture before it, part of a carefully (or carelessly) crafted online persona. And once the ball started rolling, it became a contest of who could create the most interesting red profile picture, a showcase of individual wit and ironic uniqueness. Perhaps the equal sign really is just an easy way to make a feel-good contribution—a reasonable inference, given the general culture of laziness and apathy that marks our generation. It is undeniable: We (most of us at least) are slackers. We are either internet activists who sign online petitions but never go to rallies or Internet activists who think about signing online petitions but just end up “Liking” them because filling out our address is too substantial a time commitment.

So it should be no surprise to us slackers that the non-slacker types would be critical. One critic bitterly proclaimed, “If changing your profile picture is the only thing you’ve ever done for gay rights, don’t expect applause from me.” But the concession that these actions constitute slacktivism is not necessarily an admission of their worthlessness. I think applause is in order. There is cause for serious celebration. After all, changing a profile picture is more complex than “Liking” a post. It entails the embrace of a cause and a visible endorsement that is far more meaningful than merely “Liking” or “Sharing” something. It says, essentially, this cause is me and I support it unequivocally.

So even as we question the motives and the sincerity of the commitment underlying the changes and criticize them as useless posturing, we cannot ignore the symbolic weight of these displays of solidarity. Yes, I am all for slacktivism—at least it’s better than just plain slacking.

For the average spectator and, dare I say, “participant” in the national fight for marriage equality on the cultural battlefield of Facebook, the mere appearance of momentum and unity can mean a great deal. It is a good thing, but only so long as we don’t start believing that it’s all we need.

The success of the campaign lends the illusion of a greater potential for collective action and public discourse than it actually suggests. The action it kindles is of the “indignant declaration” sort, neither effective nor substantial: We air our grievances on the injustice of discrimination or proclaim that it is “all about love” and equality. And as we cry “love, equality, acceptance,” waving around our equal sign, we assure ourselves that the argument really does come down to only these incontestable principles. We are incredulous that anyone could possibly disagree with these simple and self-evident propositions, and so become convinced there can be no valid argument on the opposing side. Thus the problem with these Facebook campaigns is not that they do nothing, but that they invite us to forget that the debate is magnitudes more complex than straightforward equality. We become convinced that our arguments are infal- lible and therefore those who disagree must be either stupid or bigoted. And so dissent is not countered but dismissed. We think it is inevitable that we will win.

But enduring change of public opinion is not a foregone conclusion, despite what seems to be a turning of the tide here in the US. A rational argument that succeeds on the terms of the opposing side is all that prevents another waffling of public opinion. Facebook activism cannot provide this argument. In fact, by simplifying the argument and idealizing our position as invulnerable, we obscure the substance of the unresolved dispute. It leaves us complacent.

The danger is not that by forgoing actual conversation we will fail to change public opinion. It takes a certain idealism to believe that rational arguments are actually more effective than compelling emotional rhetoric in the real world—irrational and biased people, too deeply entrenched in their own beliefs to be swayed by argument or debate, will not be budged by any amount of reasoned discussion. Rather, the danger of complacency lies in the very power of these stirring messages to change hearts in the moment. The wavering ones will be convinced; they will “evolve.” But though they conclude that they ought to support equality—for opposition to both love and equality must take a great toll on one’s conscience, as deeply embedded as they are in our national consciousness—they might still hold lingering concerns about the essence of marriage and parenthood. The movement then will have succeeded in changing hearts, but not minds. The undecided ones will be convinced to support marriage equality, in spite of their reservations, because they feel that it is right, that equality and love are good things. It is a momentary victory because there is an insidious impermanence to beliefs held passionately or intuitively without rational backing. If the rhetoric of love and equality erodes over time or is countered with more powerful rhetoric on the other side, these unresolved reservations would once again rear their ugly heads. When principled disagreement is overcome but not resolved, it remains subconsciously entrenched. It is perhaps why the whole abortion debate has gone nowhere and will go nowhere. When activists on both sides, absolutely convinced of their positions, refuse to acknowledge the opposing point of view, none of the core philosophical and moral issues will ever be dealt with in any substantial and conclusive way. As a result, the ones in the middle who are convinced by the compelling rhetoric of women’s freedom and autonomy to be “pro-choice” might still at times find nagging uncertainty over their position. The marriage equality movement could fall into the same vortex of unresolved controversies if it does not move beyond its reliance on mere rhetoric. Of course, there are many advocates who make substantial and deeply intelligent arguments. The question is how to engage the greater movement to follow suit and make that a foundational part of the campaign.

That is not to say that the message of the Facebook campaign is unhelpful. To critique the equal sign is problematic because of the very fact that this message has been successful, that it is so symbolically powerful, and because it really does represent the core principles of the movement. The appearance of momentum contributes to the sense that it is part of the inevitable progress of mankind towards greater equality, allowing those who have already changed their minds (e.g. politicians) to feel confident about declaring it to the world, creating social pressure to sway those who have not, and assuring those who have that they are on the right side of history. But at the same time, the profile pictures and short statuses are emblematic of the broader trend to distill arguments to bite-sized talking points; meanwhile unaddressed concerns lie dormant in wavering supporters, and are left to fester, multiply, and cement in ardent opponents. Meanwhile, in France, hundreds of thousands show up in a protest against marriage equality with their own version of pleasing, lovely signs, in baby pink and blue, of a man, woman, and child holding hands. That the traditional marriage movement in the United States has been bungling its public relations campaign is no guarantee that it will fade into history.