We often don’t always know which issues to elevate at a given time, and when we do, we don’t always figure it out in the moment. Is there a way to solve this?
This week, per usual, my social news feeds and media feeds are inundated with information about ongoing issues. One issue that is wriggling around in my mind as not getting the weight or attention it deserves is the crisis in Sudan, where millions face food shortages, and 20,000 people may starve to death. By the end of July, that number is expected to grow exponentially, placing 1.8 million people in a life-or-death crisis with no end in sight and no solution in focus.
(You can learn more about the crisis, including how you can help, here).
The situation in Sudan got me thinking about a recurring question in our discussion as activists and organizers who use the public sphere to get out messages about a given issue:
How much time do we spend on a given topic, and how do we deserve which topic(s) get attention?
The amount of time we spend on a specific issue as activists or organizers-and whether or not an individual person addresses that issue at all- is relevant to our moral calculus and what comes of it. Quite often, the critique of what we do and do not address comes in the form of judging mentions or lackthereof, i.e. “The press never talks about ____!”
Certainly, there is some legitimacy to that argument, not to be overly bogged down by something so pedantic as to render it moot. Yet the equation that determines what we do and do not discuss is far more complicated than the simple claim that we do or do not talk about a given issue, especially as a community as opposed to a media industry. Individual people, groups, etc. only have so much time, energy, attention, and resources to put behind individual efforts, including news tracking in and of itself. Once the news is tracked, assessment of an angle to be taken on a given position take time and resources, and communications strategies have to determine what to talk about and how to talk about.
In other words, it takes energy to even determine where to put energy. The imperfections of people get in the way of such decisions to such a degree that some issue areas go overlooked or without discussion entirely, and some issue areas get arguably more attention than they should, but we can’t tell which are which all of the time in real time with the opportunity to adjust before a new topic enters our view.
This calculus essentially drives the standard news cycle (tethered to who has the law in their favor, who has cash, and pure dumb luck such as weather and if someone decides to something stupid or cruel that disrupts mass behavior), and also feeds off of it. News begats news begats news.
How do we address this?
Here are four considerations that may help:
1) When we see the critique that _____ issue has gone overlooked, we must also be open to the idea that _____ issue is competing with other issues. Often, that idea, upon being offered is rebutted with the claim that both valid issues can be addressed at once (something like “I can walk and chew gum at the same time.”), but there is sometimes a sitting flaw with that example: not all valid issues can be addressed at all times by all people. It’s impossible. We build focused campaigns, issues, and individual bodies of work for a reason, and we work on what we can. The principles of mass communication and personal execution demand that we focus our efforts; we can’t always handle the issue on the table because we aren’t designed to do so. We’re limited. And that’s before we incorporate luck into the factor, as sometimes we miss a month of newscycles dealing with tragedy or something.
2) Getting past the first round of this discussion- that all issues can and should be addressed by all people at all times is the same thing as walking and chewing gum- is important, because it allows us to proceed to a better place to be in this discussion, one where we design stronger individual works, campaigns, and organizations that can coalition better without the work being simplified to reaction rather than proactive focus. A group that handles a given issue can stay on that issue, even if its members show up for other groups and issues. It removes the original critique that such a group is unable to walk and chew gum.
3) Because of the aforementioned calculus driving news, we are structurally conditioned to attack others who are working on issues in our communities instead of many of the real culprits: corporate media, bought politicians, disingenuous flacks, their muscle, the educational institutions that support them, the clubs or orgs they frequent, astro-turfed think tanks, and the super donors behind all of it, many of whom can be more than occasionally found parroting the belief that an issue that they have artificially latched onto for attention has been overlooked by whoever is most useful to them as an enemy in that moment (then calling for “unity” the next).
We should be very cautious of that dynamic.
4) This assessment underscores the importance of stressing cultural competency. Race and class divides do not arise in a vacuum, and neither should anyone’s understanding of ethics and agenda setting. Without training, education, and work toward this end, we get stuck in a reaction to the cycle where culturally incompetent leaders fail to improve and nurture an atmosphere of justice, understanding, and advances in racial and social justice. As in any case, this last reason applies most broadly to those in privileged positions, but can apply to anyone based on their bias or individualized experiences.
Possible paths forward for all of us include expanded training to combat oppression, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism (or anti-Judaism), especially for leaders who come from stations where they want to do the work but may not have the understanding to yet do so; expanded reading on racial and social justice issues; a more careful assessment of where we spend our time and spoons organizing and communicating through ongoing discourse among leaders based on fostering understanding and building coalitions; and more grace and space to get this particular part right (though not in a way that quells the need to sound the alarm for overlooked issue areas… which can only be determined by more discussion within communities).
And to circle back around: at present, it strikes me that giving the crisis in Sudan more attention in US circles is worth our time. If we don’t talk about the genocide of millions and acknowledge that it is incumbent on the world to do something about it, we’ve probably mismanaged our priorities.
If you do not have money on hand to donate to the organizations in the link mentioned at the top of this article, you can also engage in a way that is basically free by calling your House rep and two senators and demanding they get bring humanitarian aid to Sudan and release statements on the issue demonstrating the intent to make change.
As always, feedback is welcome.
Engage, Educate, Resist.
Daniel is the president of Indivisible Houston. This organization works hard within the community to build bridges as it pushes the Progressive cause to empower people. If you believe in that kind of work please donate here. Please consider subscribing to Politics Done Right here as well to ensure the message gets out.