American society consists of people with deep disagreements about pretty much everything. But I know there’s one thing we can all agree on: nobody is reading the terms of service that pop up everywhere we go! These are the lengthy blocks of legalese that appear on websites, software, and more. They are so commonplace that most people scroll through and accept them without even thinking.
Terms and conditions began as a way to inform people about what they were getting into. If a company is going to sell your information, they needed to tell you first. But the more companies did with our data, the more they needed to disclose. The statements became longer and longer to contain it all. They’re so full of of gobbledegook that entire websites exist to help people decode them. What once carried urgent meaning is now an empty gesture towards consent.
In some ways, terms and conditions are like other empty gestures that populate our lives. I’ve found three such categories that are as cursory for us as clicking “I agree” at the end of a lengthy block of text. I’m sure the authors of these statements mean well. But these messages are worthless on their own.
Terms and conditions have something in common with public statements that companies make. These come out after a national tragedy or day/month of awareness for a cause. With extensive workshopping among a leadership team they begin to feel lifeless. Political celebrities convey none of the passion or pain of a person who is actually hurting. Social media feeds fill with square statements about “standing in solidarity” with whoever. These messages can be so vague or affirming that there’s rarely ever a bold stand taken with them. Though I usually scroll past them, I can still predict the solemn messages they want to convey.
Have you ever group-edited a document? We’ll start by reading a paragraph together to make sure it feels coherent. “We believe that potato salad is an integral part of a picnic lunch.” It won’t take a sentence or two in before someone wants to add an “and” to what we’ve written so far. “We believe that potato salad and finger sandwiches are an integral part of a picnic lunch.” No, “We believe that potato salad, finger sandwiches, watermelon, deviled eggs, cold drinks…” until you’ve written the entire menu into what used to be a very clear statement. Listing every form of oppression does nothing for the oppressed. The statement, no matter how long, will still leave people out. And what are you doing for anyone you list?
Erik Loomis writes that land acknowledgments are becoming the latest of these gestures. It’s great to spread awareness that the land americans live on was ill-gotten. But acknowledgments without deeper engagement feel cursory if not outright lazy. To paraphrase Malcolm X, acknowledging that your knife is in my back does not remove it. It only means that now we both know it’s there. Statements are easy. Actual change takes work.
why this matters
Loomis describes the modern land acknowledgment as “things that require nothing of us.” I’d presume the same would also be true for the other gestures I’ve described. It takes a lot to motivate someone to take an action—any action. We waste that effort when we urge people to do the bare minimum for justice.
People living under white supremacy maintain a power of passive observation. This means that they can act with some remove, distant to the pain and struggle of their peers of color. They may center their feelings on their own emotions without considering how people closer to the pain might feel. We need to help people break out of that shell and join us in the struggle. We should encourage each other to take accountability and commit to real change.
real terms and conditions
How can we engage people in this struggle for our lives? The statements and intentions above aren’t bad, but they are incomplete. These statements are not the end of a conversation, they must in fact be the beginning.
These statements feel meaningless because they’re only half of the solution. Use these acknowledgments as the introduction to the actions you’ll take. “We occupy land that does not belong to us. We will begin to repair this damage by…” with real follow-up items in your statement. Engage local Indigenous communities in the solution before you make an announcement. Many tribes seek land repatriation, but those needs will be unique to the nations that live in the area.
Please note that a commitment to learning about an issue is not an action. Taking action is an action. Learning is a given that should happen on your own time.
Share the pain of the people who felt the harm. The massacre that took place against Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York is still fresh on my mind. We can’t omit the fact that this was a targeted killing by an avowed white nationalist. My first thought went to the queer folks targeted at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Even still, I don’t know what it’s like to have spent my whole life targeted in the way that Black people in America are. You can talk about how these tragedies make you feel. Please don’t center yourself in someone else’s tragedy. Use the pain you feel to move towards action.
Set goals, milestones, and a timeline. Your statement is not complete if it doesn’t include these things. “We will accomplish these things in the coming year.” “This is how we want this situation to look in the next three months.” Invite accountability from your community and affected parties. If you declare you will fight discrimination, do that. Use the analysis you have to find the people with a deeper understanding of the situation. Give them what they need to make this right.
It’s been a long number of years for people who have stayed in this struggle for justice. We remember the statements and commitments people made after George Floyd’s murder. On the whole, our institutions haven’t changed in the ways we need them to. Statements can be a powerful tool to rally people to join a cause. But they have to mean something.
Don’t make your statement without a prelude to something more. Don’t create one more thing the rest of us have to scroll past.