The evolution of how social media has changed how war is shared by veterans and how it is interpreted by civilians was the topic of the 17th Annual Huck Boyd Lecture on Thursday at the Kansas State Alumni Center.
Lisa Silvestri, author of “Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone,” was the keynote speaker, sharing her findings from five years of research.
Thursday’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications and K-State’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. The goal of the lecture series is to honor Huck Boyd, who was a firm believer in small towns and small-town media.
Gloria Freeland, director of the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media, said the lecture series helps highlight the importance of community journalism.
“I think people really need to know how to communicate with and cover the military,” Freeland said. “I don’t think there is enough understanding of the terminology, the acronyms and what goes on in a military community.”
Silvestri focused her lecture on the importance of understanding and becoming a better political friend to the veteran community through what she calls “actionable empathy.”
“Actionable empathy involves three complimentary tactics: interpretation, contemplation and imagination,” Silvestri said.
As she began her research, Silvestri said she realized that soldiers were no longer writing letters to communicate with those back home, even in the most remote of combat outposts, which led her through the actionable empathy process.
“I was trying to see how our lives intersect and relate,” Silvestri said. “How are our frustrations, joys, abilities and constraints similar? How can we work together to make life more livable for as many people as possible, and what can we teach and learn from each other?”
Veterans, more so than civilians, understand the value of a network, a team and a brotherhood, Silvestri said.
“The military at its base is a communitarian culture,” Silvestri said. “They truly exist as ‘all for one and one for all,’ but then they are spit out into this lonely, individualistic culture with the rest of us and there is no obvious mission out here. Well, there is a human mission, but it’s not a military mission. It’s not so much about serving others as it is about seeing yourself in kinship with them.”
Fulfilling the societal mission requires courage and tolerance from both sides — civilians and veterans — and requires both to allow themselves to see and be seen, which Silvestri related to the Greek concept known as parrhesia, meaning fearless speech.
“It’s a fearlessness that comes from believing you are among friends,” she said. “I see Facebook posts as an example of parrhesia.”
Though in such a fast-paced, media-saturated world, Silvestri said that it is easy to scroll past such posts on one’s news feed and allow a social media algorithm to filter what is seen, illustrating the need for actual empathy.
While social media bridges the gap, Silvestri said it is unfair to hold civilians responsible for attempting to understand veteran issues on their own, just like it is not right to expect veterans to try to translate their experiences or make them palatable for a civilian audience.
“But we can make an effort in this country,” she said. “We can make an effort to understand, to comprehend and to replace the impulse to retreat from one another with the discipline to stay with the discomfort and even lean into it.”
As a society, Silvestri said we need to loosen our grip on the mission to fully understand one another and, although we might never accomplish that level, we can identify and unite over individual experiences.
“Whether you lost a comrade in the war or a family member to cancer, we can share the burden of our hearts suffering and hold one another up in the struggle,” she said. “In this regard, the human mission is to form a more perfect union.”
Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Hoskins of the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley said he was impressed by Silvestri’s research, adding that he can relate to much of what she talked about when it came to interacting with the civilian side of society.
“She had really good concepts that are prevalent in society, and I think she presented them in a way that makes sense across the entire spectrum of that room, from civilians to military to veterans,” Hoskins said. “It is a necessary topic today: wars and how they have changed over time. It’s a unique dynamic in our generation, and Silvestri, though her lecture and her book, is helping break down that whole imaginary civilian-military divide.”