($) Pay Attention!! - Martin Luther King, Tomi Lahren, and Attention Economic Withdrawal
I recently read a collection of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a book called "A Call to Conscience." There is enough in a single King’s speech to warrant a career’s worth of reflection, but there was one anecdote I wanted to raise in the wake of the heartbreaking number of national tragedies. From school shootings and failed gun reform, to immigrant children dying in our custody, there is no shortage of moral emergencies that King’s voice can still speak to.
Unfortunately, accompanying these tragedies, there is no shortage of disgusting reactions. People invent excuses or even lean on dehumanizing language, calling refugees or victims “dirty,” or “infestations,” or other worse things. I can’t remember whether it’s Augustine or C.S. Lewis, but there is a quote I heard once. No one can look God in the face and say “I don't love you.” The idea here is that when a person denies God they’re denying a broken vision. The real God, the entity that is Goodness itself, if real, would be so beautiful and compelling that if we really knew God’s nature we couldn’t say no. The same is partially true of human nature. We can’t look at humans and hurt them unless we find ways to obscure their humanity. We build rationalizations in our head to say that we can harm. Or, we simply don’t classify them as humans. When we call them “other,” “outcast,” or “undeserving,” we are flailing to maintain the integrity of our own conscience. Harming abstract, non-humans is easy. But we know in our hearts we could never harm if we saw them truly as persons.
So I wanted to write about the modern masters of dehumanizing others. Depending on one’s political affiliation we can set off a hair trigger of emotion. (It’s CNN! It’s Fox News! You’re a monster! Retweet!) But to short circuit that emotional loop in our brains for a bit, I want to juxtapose the relatively uncontroversial Reverend Doctor and a particularly vitriolic talking head whose name and brand name is Tomi Lahren.
As an aside, I think there is a lot to be learned from the juxtaposition of King and Lahren. (I made a video of it here.) Both speak with conviction. Both incite powerful emotions. But where one gave his life in poetic flights of intellect grounded in a magnetic relatability, the other seems to be the walking incarnation of a rage tweet. Rather than creating targeted social disruptions to aid the weak like King, Lahren seems to wait for disruptions to occur and pounce to profit off every controversy. She says outrageous things about the victims of tragedy and then collects the modern currency attention. And where King threw literary references and compassion, Lahren throws ad hominens like monkeys throw their own dung, calling the Kaepernicks of the world who have inherited the unfinished work of the killed-too-soon-king whiners and thugs.
Everyone knows of the “I have a dream,” speech. I actually think it’s sad that a its profound moral message is obscured by its reputation and pseudo-mythic status, but King’s "I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech is, in my opinion, one of this best. It is rich in emotion, confidence, and moral power, and it turns out it was the final speech he gave before he was killed by a white nationalist with a gun.
As he spoke, in the midst of covering spiritual topics like the good Samaritan parable, and political topics like the lofty ideals we are called to by the demands of justice, Dr. King pauses to drop the brand name, “Sealtest milk.” I don't know about you, but I haven't heard about Sealtest milk.
Not unlike the kinds of protests Black Lives Matter advocates are organizing today, economic disruption was a consistent tool of the Civil Rights Movement. Most people know of the bus boycotts because of the fame of Rosa Parks. People know about the sit-ins. But people don’t know about Sealtest milk. And that is precisely why I decided to pay attention.
In an earlier, also profoundly underrated speech called "Where Do We Go From Here?" King describes the events that led to the boycott, including a personal meeting with Mr. Sealtest himself. King and his colleagues communicated the numbers to him about his unfair hiring practices, made the clear case that he and his brand name had engaged in discriminatory hiring. They demanded he change.
They gave him a chance, but on hearing his refusal, they organized a massive coordinated boycott. With picket signs, leaflets and sermons, they encouraged so many people to avoid stores selling his brand’s product that the brand was pushed into changing. A swift victory came and Sealtest changed his hiring practices. This led to job creation for the black community. It led to reform. King even joked that Sealtest was “talking very nice… very humble” after that.
But whatever internal moral transformation Mr. Sealtest might have gone through, this was not an example of personal persuasion. This victory came from using the most American power we have: consumer choice – money.
They used money to force him to change, not by… buying him out, but by refusing to buy. Sometimes it isn’t enough to persuade or convince. Sometimes people need to see their wallets on the line to reconsider. Like King said in some of his last public words, “Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.”
As another aside, this is part of why wealth inequality is such a threat to democracy. If our democratic society becomes so stratified that nothing the 99% can do can hurt the bottom lines of the 1% we will have lost part of that stabilizing force, that precious democratic capitalist ability.
But we live in a digital age. We don’t go to physical storefronts to pass our leaflets. We are transitioning out of a local physical production economy to a global data and attention economy. There are armies of people whose entire careers are spent trying to get you to watch Netflix longer, scroll through your news feed longer, and find the right Tomi Lahren posts to show you so you rage tweet back at her for longer – all the while collecting data on you so that they can cut checks from advertisers.
Nothing’s changed in that money is ultimately the commodity underneath it all. But everything has changed in that the commodity is not cash in hand so much as attention and data.
So how do we economically withdraw in an age of the attention economy?
There are no one-stop-shop solutions, but one way forward is by recognizing that Tomi Lahren, and all the “news” outlets that profit from stoking controversy instead of communicating facts are brand names. They sell righteous indignation and/or vitriolic/rage in exchange for ad revenue.
Lahren has a brand just like Mr. Sealtest. Where he profited from unfair hiring practices, she profits by stoking rage in moments of national crisis. And just like the old brand was taken down with economic withdrawl, the new brands can be too. But in the Attention Economy this doesn’t mean leaflets and sermons, it means:
-Don’t retweet as a virtue signal
-Even debate elsewhere.
Certainly, you can read and absorb if you must, but recognize that every time you do these things for a twitter account you are paying them in the currencies of our age. Attention, ad revenue, and priority according to the algorithms that increasingly shape our culture (and elections!).
So next time she tweets. Unfollow. If her tweets reappear, scroll past. That, embarrassingly enough, is one way to form a picket line of our age. If you must engage with her followers, which I encourage, do so following these principles.
To be clear, it doesn’t replace voting. It doesn’t get us off the hook for contributing to campaigns. It doesn’t solve all the problems. But it does reframe, hopefully, how we think about our emotions and the internet.
It may seem like rage re-tweeting a brand like hers is a way of getting back at her. I’ve done it. It can feel cathartic to “speak truth to the ignorant” on twitter. But yelling insults at Tomi Lahren underneath her posts doesn’t hurt her, it’s how she buys her blonde hair dye.
So, here's what I hope. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968. This last April marked 50 years since one of the great moral leaders of our country was killed.
In those 50 years, some morally corrupt brands like Sealtest milk have faded into obscurity. In another 50 years I want no one to have heard of Tomi Lahren, or any of these “news” outlets that profit from divisiveness, liberal or conservative.
Should we have frank and honest conversations about politics in our country? Yes. Should we call out people in power who say horrible things? Yes. But we should be mindful to have those discussions in such a way that doesn’t accidentally reward the very people we are fighting against.
If you angrily respond to someone online, you’re just paying that person and being played by that person. When you’re a kid in school and you zoned out your teacher says, “pay attention.” There’s a lesson in that. In the age of the attention economy this is literally true. Collective digital attention is economic power. Here’s to hoping we learn to use it.
***This version was corrected to fix the incorrect date of King’s Assassinstion.