The “I Am…” Meme: Co-Opting Identities for Social Change

November 3, 2014

It has become fashionable in recent years for social justice protestors to choose a person who symbolizes a tragic event and then declare to the world that they are that person.

“I am Trayvon Martin,” hundreds of Floridians claimed after the youth was shot and killed during a struggle with George Zimmerman in 2012.

“I am Michael Brown,” hundreds of Missourians claimed after the youth was shot and killed during a struggle with police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson earlier this year.

The “I Am…” meme has spread through social media and been embraced by many. Nurses recently complained about the lack of medical care and precautions available for treating Ebola patients, and used Ebola-infected nurse Nina Pham as their rallying symbol: “Wearing an ‘I am Nina Pham’ sticker, Rhonda Hanos, a nurse with the Dayton VA and director of the Dayton VA chapter of National Nurses United, said nurses in the Dayton region are concerned that they don’t yet have the proper protocol or equipment to protect them in case of an outbreak.”

Another “I Am…” protest was recently launched in New York City in response to an opera:

“Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, led a rally outside the Metropolitan Opera on Monday to protest the company’s production of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,’ which some have called anti-Semitic and sympathetic to terrorism. The 1991 opera depicts the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish American man who was killed by four Palestinian hijackers aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 1985. After killing him, they ordered his body be thrown overboard along with his wheelchair. Some have hailed the work as a masterpiece by American composer John Adams. But protesters were outside the Met opening on Monday, several of whom admitted they had never seen the opera… About 100 protesters were lined up in wheelchairs wearing signs around their neck reading ‘I am Leon Klinghoffer.'”

Even the Michael Brown shooting inspired counter-protestors using the same tactic. Supporters of the police office who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, also protested: “‘I am Darren Wilson.’ The slogan is all over the St. Louis metropolitan area: on T-shirts worn by soccer moms, on rubber bracelets worn by police officers, on signs held by their wives. ‘I am Darren Wilson,’ they proclaim, in a show of affinity with the white police officer who shot black teenager Michael Brown to death in the street in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9. ‘I am Darren Wilson,’ they affirm, as St. Louis waits for a grand jury to rule whether the most infamous police officer in America will be indicted.”

Co-Opting Victimhood

Hyperbole in activism is nothing new. It’s no secret that people who are sincerely trying to push for change sometimes exaggerate to make a point or make a social problem seem more urgent. To choose just one of many examples, the claim that a third of gay teens kill themselves has been around for over a decade, and circulated widely in the wake of the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi in 2010. (Tyler Clementi’s death, by the way, also generated several protestors claiming “I Am Tyler Clementi.) It makes sense on the face of it: gays and teenagers are both groups with higher risk for suicide than average. So gay teens-having two independent, elevated risk factors for suicide-probably increases the likelihood. But does it increase it so much that fully 33% of gay teens kill themselves?

Joel Best, professor and chair of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, debunked the inflated statistics behind the gay teen suicide rate in his 2001 book Damned Lies and Statistics. Best noted that the one in three gay teen suicide statistic was derived from “a chain of bad statistics” using discredited and outdated numbers, dubious assumptions, math errors, and arbitrarily selecting the highest numbers in estimates of suicide incidence (see pp. 90-92). “Coroners, after all, do not record sexual orientation on death certificates… The final figure depends completely on the assumptions used to make the calculations,” Best notes. According to a study by Cornell University’s Ritch Savin-Williams published in the December 2001 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “the assertion that sexual-minority youths as a class of individuals are at increased risk for suicide is not warranted.”

While hyperbolic statistics are (presumably) meant to be taken literally, hundreds of people claiming to be Trayvon Martin, Tyler Clementi, or Michael Brown are of course meant to be taken figuratively. The symbolic intention behind the phrase is clear and unmistakable: The victim of the injustice is not the demonized Other (the scary Black teenager, the bullied gay student, the maligned nurse or police officer, etc.) but one of us. The message is that an injustice to one person represents an injustice to us all, that we need to stand up for the underdog and those who cannot defend themselves. It’s a powerful, empowering sentiment-but its use also raises thorny ethical questions.

Social Appropriation

I wrote about this issue in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us:

“These days, nearly any event or tragedy can, with a little spin doctoring, be turned into a simplified, tearjerking mythological narrative complete with a hero, villain, and social agenda. The heroes tend to be young innocents suffering or dying due to a dread predator. The martyr’s accomplishments, of course, don’t stop at their deaths. Fueled by a mission and self-righteousness, the promoters write books about their heroes (Cassie Bernall’s She Said Yes), launch Web sites and national organizations, television shows (America’s Most Wanted), and get laws passed in their names (Megan’s Law).

On March 26, 2000, about 750 people turned out for an event held at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Atlanta, Georgia. Dubbed “Stop The Terror,” the event was an all-day summit dedicated to preventing hate crimes. Sponsored by the Center for Democratic Renewal, the march also served as a memorial service for fifteen young people in particular who organizers said had been victims of hate crimes, including gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

Matthew Shepard’s death inspired a three-act, three-hour play titled, “The Laramie Project.” Eighteen months in the making, the play was performed by the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York-based theater troupe. The play’s author, Moises Kaufman, interviewed scores of Laramie residents and friends of Shepard’s. Kaufman said he considered Shepard’s death “one of history’s watershed moments.” A film based on “The Laramie Project” was released in 2002. A film was also made about the hate-crime death of Teena Brandon, a young transvestite; Boys Don’t Cry, for which Hilary Swank won a Best Actress Academy Award.

Having books, plays, and films written about martyrs is nothing new. But in recent years it seems that the body is barely cold before advocates scramble to find a way to claim the departed as a martyr for their cause. This opportunistic co-opting of the dead should make at least some people uncomfortable. What if Matthew Sheppard didn’t want to become a gay rights icon? What if he didn’t want to be known for his death but instead his life? 

People recast victims into posthumous activists because of the circumstances of their deaths. But people are more than jus
t the circumstances of their deaths, and if anyone would know that it should be those closest to the victims. Many people claim that their sexuality doesn’t define who they are. Yet by making Matthew Shepard into a martyr, Kaufman and others ensure that he will be remembered in the public mind as “the gay hate-crime victim in Wyoming.” Perhaps some martyrs would be comfortable in their post-mortem advocacy roles. But, with few exceptions, we’ll never know.

Martyrhood reduces a complex person into a stereotype, demeaning him or her into merely a victim’s role. Parents and friends of those who have died in tragedies frequently aren’t shy about injecting their own personal agendas into the memories of the dead. The implicit message seems to be that the martyrdom is done for a good cause, and helps the dead person’s life have lasting meaning. But that’s a disrespectful argument; hopefully their lives were meaningful quite apart from the circumstances of their deaths.”

Speaking For Others

Unlike Michael Brown, Leon Klinghoffer, and the others, Nina Pham can speak for herself; she has recovered from her Ebola infection and returned home. In fact it’s not clear that Pham even agreed with the points made by the protestors who claimed to speak on her behalf; she has not blamed the hospital where she worked for lax procedures or inadequate training. Everyone acknowledges that early errors and misjudgments were made about Ebola protection and containment, but (unlike people wearing “I Am Nina Pham” stickers) the real Nina Pham has not held the hospital responsible for her contracting the disease.

Identifying-not just identifying but personally identifying so strongly as to claim another’s identity, even symbolically-is a polarizing position. It’s a “you’re either with us or against us” position to take. But it’s possible that a person might “be” (i.e., sympathize with and support) both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, for different reasons. We might support Brown because we feel that his shooting was unjustified, according to several eyewitnesses. We might also support Officer Wilson because asTime magazine reported, “‘a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses’ have provided testimony to the grand jury that supports Wilson’s version of events. Brown’s blood was found on the gun, on Wilson’s uniform and spattered on an inside door panel of the car, according to the New York Times.” This supports Wilson’s claim that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the patrol car.

Others may find things to support in both of their causes, for example believing that Brown’s shooting was unjustified, but also that the public and the news media’s demonization of Officer Wilson ahead of the facts was unjustified. It’s not a clear-cut black and white world, and with little or no validated information about what really happened, it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to find truth on both sides of a story. The news media, of course, seek out extreme and polarizing positions and then portrays them as typical, thus those who take a nuanced view or who have mixed feelings are rarely represented.

The “I Am…” social justice tag isn’t going away any time soon, and it certainly sends a clear (if superficial) message of solidarity. But it raises thorny questions about the ethics of speaking on behalf of others. Few if any of these people were activists in the causes their images and names are being used to promote; instead they were accidental victims of circumstance. When we use other people’s names, images, and lives for our personal agendas and claim to speak on their behalf (especially without their permission) we disrespect and dehumanize them.