Education or Death: Why the SOPA/PIPA Blackout Protest Matters

If you visit my website today between 8 AM and 8 PM, this is what you’ll see:

I’ve joined sites all over the world wide web — from Reddit, BoingBoing and Wikipedia to WordPress, Google, even the Pagan Newswire Collective — in a blackout protest against the proposed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy ACT) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills that would drastically change the way the internet works and undermine innovation, communication and even basic safety by putting in place the infrastructure necessary for large-scale censorship.

My stepdaughter recently treated her father and I to this gem of wisdom when we were talking about her uncle’s job in the marketing industry:

“But if you create positions of power based on the idea that a good person will use that power wisely, you don’t have any way of preventing a person who isn’t good from abusing that power later on.”

She was raised on Lord of the Rings. Can you tell?

That’s what this protest is really about. As a writer and creative type who thrives in the online world, issues of copyright protection and piracy can be very real problems for me. Of course I want legal protections for my work. As an avid reader and web-surfer who loves lolcats and Dinosaur Comics as much as the next person, I want the artists, writers and creative types out there who produce content for my favorite sites to have those same protections — even, no, especially if those creative types are just some college students messing around on YouTube and not Hollywood stars making millions off the latest blockbuster.

But that’s not what SOPA/PIPA is really about. The SOPA and PIPA bills are like the ring of power forged in the fires of Mount Doom: one law to rule them all, one law to find them, one law to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Sponsored by a bloated entertainment industry that overcharges for pretty much everything, these bills would put in place the kind of invasive oversight infrastructure that would not only allow large corporations to sue technology start-ups and independent artists out of existence based on little to no evidence of piracy or copyright infringement, but would require on-going surveillance of user-produced content that makes Facebook’s privacy problems look like child’s play. Any website perceived as a potential threat to the Powers That Be would be vulnerable to lawsuits, while individuals would be subject to censorship and data-mining as a matter of course, creating a hostile and uncertain online environment in which conformity becomes the order of the day.

Ungood. Doubleplusungood.

Now, here’s the thing. Over on Google+ today I saw that Diana Rajchel is participating in the blackout, but also writing a piece on why the SOPA/PIPA issue is receiving more attention and immediate action than the NDAA/indefinite detention amendment that would make it possible for the government to indefinitely detain anyone suspected of terrorist ties, including U.S. citizens. (People always say that last part as though it’s especially bad, though personally I’m horrified at the idea that we think it’s okay to detain anyone, citizen or not, indefinitely without trial or access to legal aid.) Lots of people have been making noise about this amendment online and protesting its implications, but that didn’t stop Obama recently from going ahead and signing it (although he noted his reservations and promised that his administration would never detain U.S. citizens in that way — he should have a talk with my stepdaughter).

At the time of this writing, I haven’t read Diana’s post so I don’t know what she’s going to say. But her G+ update got me thinking about the challenge of balancing our political activism, choosing carefully how we address the myriad injustices that we face as a society. There are a lot of them. Sometimes the deep, systemic problems get overlooked in the swell of support for more sensationalist issues. Someone a little further down in my G+ stream complained that the only reason #Occupy caught on was because poverty had finally begun to effect middle-class white people who’d thought they were immune. That may well be true, and it’s painful and frustrating for people and communities who have been struggling with poverty and marginalization for decades, centuries, even millennia. For the most part, people are pretty small-minded and self-centered, and it can be difficult to mobilize a society around issues that only affect small, disenfranchised groups who lack the visibility or clout of the mainstream. Diana brings up just another example of this. The indefinite detention of terror suspects is a far greater injustice than whether or not some new social network start-up gets a fair shot at providing us with amusing pictures of cats. Right?

On the other hand, I wouldn’t have even known about the NDAA amendment, or Diana’s plan to write about it, without those very social networking sites. Young Egyptian protesters wouldn’t have been able to organize an uprising without Twitter and Facebook. #Occupy wouldn’t be changing the conversation about capitalism and corporate personhood without the internet — hell, the very movement is branded with the epitome of a social media symbol, the hashtag. None of these political movements have been perfect, and all of them have taken for granted certain assumptions of the very political and social structures they’re trying to change. That’s why political activism is an on-going commitment to the process of creating and carving out space for social justice, not a once-and-done fix-all. As Pratchett’s anti-hero Samuel Vimes said, “Revolutions always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions.”

So how do we choose when and how to act? How do we choose where to put our focus? Each person has to answer that question on their own, but I’ll let you know a bit about how I decide:

As a Pagan, I honor the cycles of the natural world. Life and death, mutation and evolution, adaptation and survival. As human animals, we have this thing called “culture.” Other animals have it, too — there’s evidence that apes can learn and pass down social behaviors from generation to generation, for instance — but I think it’s safe to say that human beings have pushed culture kicking and screaming into the foreground as our primary form of adaptation and evolution. For most animal and plant species, evolution comes gradually as unhelpful biological traits and instinctive behaviors are slowly weeded out of the gene pool as individuals with those traits don’t survive long enough to reproduce.

But when a species or a community develops culture, they now have another way of passing on helpful behaviors and traits to the next generation: education. Cultural adaptation gives a community an alternative to the slow process of genetic trial and error. An ape that can learn from an older member of her social group how to use a twig to dig for ants doesn’t need to be genetically related to her teacher in order to benefit from the lesson. And that same ape doesn’t need to have offspring of her own in order to pass on these learned behaviors for the benefit of others. Species that have the capacity to learn and to teach can circumvent death as their primary way to correct for inappropriate or poorly-suited patterns of behavior. New behaviors can be learned as environments change and communities grow, and those behaviors can be spread more quickly through cultural education than through generations of genetically-predisposed offspring.

In other words, when it comes to evolution our choice is quite literally: education, or death.

That’s how fundamental education and the free expression and exchange of information is to the survival of a species like us humans. Education or death.

The history of the human species has shown us over and over that communities kept in ignorance and isolation are the very same communities that tend towards militarism and violence. The cycle of ignorant xenophobia and social aggression feeds on itself like a snake eating its own tail — without access to education and free communication, death becomes once again the only way we can learn the lessons of adaptation and cooperative, mutual survival. Yes, it is absolutely necessary to fight the injustices of war, violence and oppression, to confront them head on and stare them down with an unwavering commitment. But the foundation of that struggle is our ability to communicate and learn from each other, to listen with receptivity and appreciation to those who seem different or strange to us. Scaling back the war machine is only a temporary measure at best without substantive, fundamental cultural change — and that change can only come about through education, communication, creativity and innovation.

So I’m participating in the SOPA/PIPA blackout protest because I want, with all my heart, for folks like Diana to keep on writing about the NDAA amendment and all the other crazy, fucked up injustices in the world.

Sure, lots of people are probably mobilized around the SOPA/PIPA issue because it could jeopardize their ability to make lots of money off of user-generated content and sponsored ads online, or because it might interfere with their addiction to dubbed-over nature documentaries about honey badgers and auto-tuned Charlie Sheen interviews. Are those really shitty reasons to care about the problem of internet censorship? You bet. Is the SOPA/PIPA blackout protest gaining momentum because it affects ordinary, mainstream, middle-class white people, and not just those “bad people” potential-terrorists? Yep. So it goes.

Because that’s what a free society looks like. If you want a society where people are free to care about and mobilize around the deeply, vitally important issues of social justice and peacemaking, you have to work for a society where they are also free to care about silly, trivial nonsense if they want.

Does it bug the hell out of me? Fuck yes. It seems grossly unfair that religious, ethnic, racial and gender minorities have been struggling forever against systemic prejudices, that the impoverished, disenfranchised and most vulnerable in our society are the easiest scapegoats to blame and punish when something goes wrong, and the easiest to ignore when everything seems fine. A lot of the time, I feel like Ani DiFranco when she sings:

You want to track each trickle back to its source
and then scream up the faucet until your face is hoarse,
because you’re surrounded by a world’s worth of things you just can’t excuse.
You’ve got the hard cough of a chain smoker,
and you’re at the arctic circle playing strip poker,
and it’s getting colder and colder every time you lose.
So go ahead…. make your next bold move.

There is so much injustice in the world. Sometimes the cause of peace seems to be up against impossible odds. But then I also like to remember the story about Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta, tending to a group of starving and injured children, when a reporter approached her and asked, “What about the children over there? Why do you help these children instead of those children, when those others need help, too?” And Mother Teresa looked at the reporter and said, “You’re right, they do need help. Why don’t you put down that microphone and go help them?”

When we show up to each other, when we reach out and communicate — that’s when we can coordinate our efforts. We don’t each need to be strong enough or powerful enough to save the world all by ourselves. All we need is to be willing to work together to do our part.

That’s why I’m protesting SOPA/PIPA today. Because I want to be able to keep writing blog posts like this. I want to keep being able to tell stories about why I love this world so much, and why I long for peace with every fiber of my being. And yeah, sometimes I want to watch silly videos on YouTube and laugh and find joy in those things, too. The world needs joy and silliness just as much as it needs anger and protest. I don’t want a revolution if there isn’t going to be some dancing.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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