You’re not always going to be the right person to talk about something, and that’s okay

When something big happens in the world, whether it’s a protest, a high-profile news story, or a trending hashtag, you might feel the urge to say something about it, particularly on social media.

But using social media can be tricky, especially public-facing platforms like Twitter or Instagram. By it’s very nature, social media is performative. We are presenting the version of ourselves or our brand that we want other people to see. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with curating online spaces, statements and messages of support surrounding certain issues can quickly become performative as well, especially if you don’t belong to or have much knowledge of a particular group.

This definitely applies to Black Lives Matter, but it also applies to feminism, immigration, targeted harassment, poverty, mental health, and so many other important issues. If you have a platform, you should be using it to denounce racism, sexism, homophobia, and other injustices when you can, but there comes a point when adding another voice, particularly an uninformed one, can do more harm than good.

Take something that happened just earlier this week on Black Out Tuesday. While generally well-intentioned, #blacklivesmatter and #blm posts quickly overwhelmed platforms where vital information was being dispersed by activists. And these posts weren’t helping to spread the information, they were just black squares from people trying to acknowledge the movement.

Aside from causing quantifiable harm, you also risk virtue signaling when you speak out about movements you haven’t previously been involved in. While it’s always good to change your mind when presented with new information and learn about issues that affect the people around you, you shouldn’t feel the need to prove to people how moral you are.

If you aren’t sure how to respond to a current event, especially if it doesn’t directly affect you, your best bet is just to say nothing — but that shouldn’t be confused with doing nothing.

No matter who you are, it’s crucial not to stay silent in the face of suffering and to reach out to and support those close to you. But you can learn a lot and avoid clogging essential channels (not to mention making an ass of yourself) if you sit down and listen sometimes rather than speaking.

This is something I struggle with constantly, particularly as a writer. I am technically capable of writing about a wide range of topics, but I am often not the right person to do it. I don’t really know what it’s like to be man, or a parent, or a teen today, or someone who isn’t white-passing in America. Rather than posting something that is tone deaf and potentially harmful, it’s often better to just be quiet and absorb information, while using your space to raise up voices that are better suited to speaking about a particular topic.

It can be difficult to know when to be silent and when to speak up, and we’re not always going to get it right. But we have to try. We have to be open to criticism and ready to learn and do better. Having the space to speak up, even online, is a privilege, and not one that everyone is afforded. So, until everyone has equal access to being heard, we have to be willing to cede some of our space to fight injustice.

Therefore, silence on social media is not always harmful. That’s not to say we shouldn’t hold public figures and those with large platforms accountable for the space and influence they have, but not everyone needs to speak up about everything all at once. While the power of petitions and protests are undeniable, lasting change requires both overt and subtle forces. We need to be having nuanced conversations with people who look and act like us, as well as learning, researching, raising money, creating resources, posting to social media, and taking to the streets. But we don’t have to do it all to make a difference.

Posting on social media is just one facet of generating change, and creating a more just world, but it’s not the only one.

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