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ZIFF: Festivus and the airing of grievances

Social media campaigns fail to provide a forum for effective, substantial argument

One brisk day in the winter of 1997, a holiday — or, rather, anti-holiday — was born. The sitcom “Seinfeld” aired an episode in which George Costanza reveals his family celebrates “Festivus,” invented by his father as a way to counter “the commercialism of the December holidays.” Festivus upends conventional holiday customs such as colorful decorations and merriment by including as a centerpiece a bare metal “Festivus pole” and, more importantly, encouraging an “airing of grievances” where “each person lashes out at others and the world about how they have been disappointed in the past year.”

Festivus is only celebrated once a year — on Dec. 23 — but it seems to have become a year round event. Each and every day we are faced with an online barrage of grievances, bared and aired to the virtual world at large. The Atlantic’s Meg Garber observes that we live in the age of the “journalistic think piece,” where everything from pockets to Jennifer Lawrence to the think piece itself is used as a platform for socio-cultural commentary and critique. We imbue the banal with as much significance as we do to the serious and weighty. Even when we do turn our sights to a more jarring and attention-worthy topic — say, the Charlie Hebdo crisis — the discussion becomes insular and stagnant, deteriorating to squabbling about which Twitter hashtag is most appropriate (#JeSuisCharlie? #JeNeSuisPasCharlie? #JeSuisAhmed? #JeNeSuisPasAhmed?).

Are we all just talking at each other? Social media forums are notoriously bad for interacting with other people. Not only are we alone when we stand on our virtual soapboxes, but Facebook and Twitter let us behave like ideological Whack-a-Moles, launching loaded statements and then retreating from any rebuttal into the depths of the Internet.

The Rolling Stone article on sexual assault at the University catalyzed a wave of national and local media coverage and provoked a now-standard countrywide discussion on sexual assault on campus. This occurred in the wake of the Ferguson protests that roiled the United States over issues of racial equality and bias, challenges our nation has been contending with since its founding.

The need for conversation is vital and pressing. But what kind? Social media campaigns and news media scrutiny are, indeed, effective in garnering awareness and instituting change. The focus on Ferguson made it so that Eric Garner’s death did not go unnoticed, and made it more difficult for police misconduct to be tacitly accepted as an externality of law enforcement. The spotlight on sexual abuse — which is confoundingly frequent on college campuses — has vibrant Greek communities at large universities sweating, and rushing to institute reforms such as banning hard liquor and placing more stringent — some would say untenable — regulations on fraternity parties.

That alcohol is being vilified is a testament to the confusion and ignorance that surrounds sexual assault: alcohol may be a factor in some cases, yet no amount of bourbon can explain what prompts men to rape unconscious women (and, in one horrifying case, record it on video.)

In an article on the interpretations of free speech, Adam Gopnik wrote of the United States that “insularity is the national plague.” He was referring to our national debates on gun control and vaccine efficacy, which — unique to all other Western industrialized nations — remain abstracted from logic and developments in modern medicine. I would argue this insularity is not only reserved for controversy, but allows everything to be made into a controversy, adopting a significance it does not merit.

With so many outlets for self-expression and so much competition for readership, the increased impulse to share, examine and give meaning to every facet of our quotidian existence perverts the normal responses to events in our lives. We are equally outraged over traffic, or a long line at Starbucks or Kim Kardashian as we are of the travesties we witness or read about. When you can just as easily use a hashtag to express sympathy for girls kidnapped into sexual slavery by Islamic militant group Boko Haram — #bringbackourgirls — as you can to voice exasperation over lagging wireless internet  — #firstworldproblems — which is more significant? Which deserves more consideration? In the absence of actual engagement and conversation, how can we debate and decide these things?

There is reason that Festivus should only come once a year — there are only so many things we can and should lament. Instead of online outrage, we should dedicate our other 364 days to addressing rectifying deserved grievances, matters that deserve and necessitate action. Festivus year-round can only mean a surplus of unnecessary grief, and a dearth of energy to resolve it.

Tamar Ziff is a Viewpoint Writer.

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