Author: Sarah Flocken
Blue. Black. Purple. Red plaid. White-striped. Pink. Lace.
A few weeks ago, women all across the Facebook user population received a message inviting them to share their bra color in their status in order to “raise awareness” for breast cancer research. In response, many women, including myself, thought, “What the hell, why not?” and followed suit. Little did I know that by simply writing “pink with polka dots” in my status box, I had plunged myself into the middle of the cultural trend known as “slacktivism.”
The ever-truthful Wikipedia defines slacktivism as a hybrid of slacker and activism, describing “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, with little or no practical effect other than giving personal satisfaction to the “slacktivist.” These acts tend to require little personal effort. This definition, in addition to an article posted on npr.org, names the wearing of “awareness” bracelets, joining Facebook groups, posting socially-minded Facebook status updates and participating in short-term boycotts like “Buy Nothing Day” or “Earth Hour,” as decidedly slacktivist activities.
Well, shame on me. By these definitions, I, in addition to probably 99 percent of the American student population, am a slacktivist. Given the popularity of so-called slacktivist activities in environments such as the Occidental College community, I now propose we open up a debate concerning the social phenomenon of slacktivism, and the future of activism itself. I will begin here by writing a short, Montaigne-esque “defense of slacktivism,” in which I will defend some of the points of slacktivism, while acknowledging its potential danger to social change. In doing so, I pose the question, “What is true activism, and how feasible is it for the average student to be a ‘true activist?'”
Let’s begin by taking apart that big-picture question. First, “What is true activism?” For previous generations, this meant anything from peaceful sit-ins to end segregation, to public bra-burning in proclamation of women’s liberation, even at the risk of violent opposition and legal trouble. Today, the possibility of facing police brutality and arrests to protest war and all manners of injustice has become a foreign concept to the contemporary student.
Secondly, “How feasible is it for the average student to be a ‘true activist?'” Laziness, of course, could be a culprit in the decline of “truly” activist students in this generation. But to play devil’s advocate, and to give voice to what is currently on the minds of the more career-minded students: In this economy, would activist-related arrests or even simply appearing in the news as a result of a peaceful protest look good on your record to future employers? The answer, sadly, is no: Arrests are arrests, jail time is jail time and controversial publicity is controversial publicity to the majority of mainstream employers out there. Therefore, if “true activism” means getting in trouble, I understand that most students struggling to find employment can’t risk it.
So, what’s a socially-conscious, yet entirely human/fallible girl to do? As president of Oxy’s chapter of STAND (Students Taking Action Now for Darfur), I realize that there is only so much, within a college context, that can truly be done. Truthfully, students are largely more concerned with graduating on time than with trying to end a years-long genocide in sub-Saharan Africa. They will, however, see Facebook group/event/cause invites and occasionally respond, or sign an online petition.
Here, therefore, I defend the social-networking aspect of student slacktivism: I would never have become this involved with the Darfur cause had I not responded to a Facebook invite to a seminar given by a Jewish World Watch activist. Before that, I wouldn’t have been curious enough to search for reliable news articles about the genocide. Slacktivism then, in the form of petitions, Facebook invites, groups and statuses, can be a useful thing. Slackivist techniques can inform people about an issue or even inspire them to come up with a truly meaningful solution.
However, the reality is that more and more often, the slacktivist techniques are becoming the only thing considered “activism” – this is not good. When the majority of the student population is made fully aware of the situation in Darfur, but simply signs the occasional online petition instead of actively thinking of new ideas or even fundraisers, slacktivism hasn’t accomplished anything. Posting one’s bra color on one’s Facebook status to “spread awareness” of breast cancer without even considering walking in Relay for Life and/or collecting donations for cancer research is a negative and even counter-productive form of slacktivism. If people grow too complacent with slacktivist techniques and do not take further action, then the “movement” becomes dangerous.
I will close by reiterating my statement that yes, slacktivism can feasibly be the only thing possible for a career-minded student. I even agree that viral/digital slacktivism can be extremely useful for planting the seeds of ideas in peoples’ minds. But will we become a people that thinks progress is made through the click of a “respond” button? Appropriation of the “cause of the moment” onto one’s wristband, t-shirt or Facebook page, without any further action, is insulting to those who work for change.
I do recognize my own slacktivist tendencies, and am loathe to make my family bail me out of jail after I’m arrested in protest for a cause. Change, however, does not come without risk. This risk does not have to be very big, but it must move beyond passive slacktivism. Write a letter. Make a phone call. Brainstorm a fundraiser.
I don’t pretend to know what is right for the world, or how to fix every problem. I do, however, believe that if slacktivism, coupled with complacency, becomes the norm and future of social change, this planet is doomed – regardless of what Facebook groups you have recently joined, or even what color your bra is.
Sarah Flocken is a senior ECLS major. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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