The news is filled with emotion-driven stories of wrong-doing, finger-pointing, and demands for immediate for change. You flip on Fox News or CNN and catch a glimpse of the latest travesty, which you’ll discuss over drinks with your friends the next day. You scroll through Facebook or Twitter and click “like” on the posts and comments you agree with, perhaps even donating a few bucks to the latest victims or violence or natural disaster. Some people attend rallies and marches, holding up signs that boldly express their views and their longing for change.
The modern world is filled with dissent. People from every ethnicity, location, and political affiliation express dissatisfaction with government leaders, unethical organizations, religious sects, and power-hungry individuals. With the advent and rise of television and social media, instances of activism are becoming more prominent in our day-to-day lives. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, flip on the TV, or scroll through social media without seeing some form of dissent.
Whether the issue is guns, woman’s rights, sexual harassment, or political scandal, nearly everyone seems to have very strong opinions. However, I’m not convinced these strong opinions are doing much to change the world. I don’t see people acting on their supposed beliefs in ways that will create lasting impact.
For years, I’ve observed as people become impassioned over the latest crime against humanity and then gradually begin to lose interest, that is until their news feed reveals a new reason to get worked up. Having studied psychology, I understand that this is human nature–we’re tribal beings, coming together to protect our like-minded kin for as long as a particular threat is at the forefront of our minds.
Activism Vs Slacktivism
Activism is, quite simply, taking action to effect social change, often by challenging the current dominant ideology or pushing principles that counter its negative effects. It can take the form direct action undertaking civil disobedience, protests, occupations, campaigning, boycotts and demonstrations through to more conventional activism such as lobbying, writing letters, internet activism, petitions and attending meetings.
Consider some of the hashtags that have made the news this year: #deletefacebook, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, #jesuischarlie and #kony2012. Does clicking on “like” truly change anything?
Social media give underrepresented groups a voice, but a small voice in the crowd typically does not have any decision-making power. Hashtag activism helps start conversations, connect like-minded folks, and mobilize communities against shared grievances. In a recent Pew survey, 77% of participants felt that social networking sites distract people from the issues that are truly important, and another 71% felt that social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t.
In the same study, 69% of U.S. adults said that social media was very or somewhat important for getting elected official to pay attention to issues, while 67% felt the sites were somewhat important for creating sustained movements for social change.
“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
So, is what we’re doing effective? Critics of hashtag activism often refer to this form of social protest as “slacktivism,” meaning that little effort beyond what’s done on the internet has been put into the real world for concrete results or solutions to the issue at hand.
The internet likes and shares can help to raise awareness, call attention to mistreatment, and raise money for worthy causes. However, with an ever-increasing number of online petitions, these virtual spaces create a false sense that the movement has gained enough momentum to produce real change when in reality it hasn’t.
Loss of Momentum
There is no doubt that activism hashtags ignite important conversations, which inevitably spill into face-to-face conversations, spur constructive action, and create effective social change. However, social activism cannot hinge exclusively on social media posts. While provocative, a sentence or paragraph cannot fully capture and define a movement’s objectives, leaving the cause vulnerable to stagnation.
With each prominent social event or movement, hashtags emerge almost instantaneously, quickly attain immense levels of popularly, and then fade away at varying speeds. Hashtag activism commands attention, but not always action.
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional tsunami when women come forward with accusations of sexual assault, minorities are needlessly killed, or children are separated from their families. Media outlets sensationalize these stories, making it even harder for us to step back, put down our pickets, and figure out actions to identify and address the root problem. If we don’t take action, the strong emotions will begin to subside and everyone will move on with their lives until the next big calamity.
So, are people willing to come into action enough to accomplish real social change? Are people prepared to take on the role of activist in a more active form than just clicking some buttons from behind a computer screen?
For productive activist work to be carried out, those fighting for a cause must leverage a healthy balance of digital and real-world campaigning in order to deeply engage, educate and empower their communities.
A Nation Divided
It seems evident that someone or something is orchestrating national (and perhaps global) division, animosity, and distrust. Despite the many important and progressive social milestones over the last several decades, there is still a persistent mindset of “us versus them.” Whether the issue is race, political affiliation, sexual preference, religious practice or favorite genre of music, people generally gravitate to those with similar beliefs and avoid those with different opinions.
We should keep in mind that the barriers we often come up against are protecting the interests and needs of the dominant capitalist system and the ruling elite. These interests need to be challenged in order for real change to occur, but this is impossible if we continue to vilify those who are fighting for the same things we are. If we were to listen, we might realize that we have more in common with our neighbors than we previously realized.
Our local and global community is comprised of a wide range of individuals with different backgrounds, opinions, resources, and hopes. We must learn to accept the fact that we are all part of the same species, and sharing the earth with an infinite number of other living creatures. We must come to embrace the differences and welcome the opportunity to learn from one another.
Today, an open-mind and willingness to question news sources is more important than ever before. Additionally, it is vital that we learn to come together to have the important conversations, regardless of differing views
Setting the Stage For Real Change
So, here the real question: How do we get involved in ways that can actually lead to the future that we want to see?
I can’t deny that the modern form of activism has done some good. The Ice Bucket Challenge raised $115 million for ALS, which contributed to the discovery of a new gene. Bringing attention to important causes has encouraged young people to vote, attend town hall meetings, and take the discussions off-line.
Though money raised, voter turnout and meaningful dialogue could be pointed to as indicators of success, it remains to be seen whether these factors will actually lead to institutional changes. As we watch this new form of activism unfold, we should consider ways to bridge hashtag activism with real-world opportunities to get involved and promote social change.
How to Enact Lasting Change Today
It’s important to keep in mind that change is a marathon. Whether trying to quit smoking, loose those last five pounds or enact a new policy, we often need to try several times before the conditions are ripe for permanent and lasting change. With this in mind, what can we do to identify and then address the root cause of injustice?
“True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within.” — Saul Alinsky
Depending on the cause, we may choose to teach our children critical thinking at home or send them to a school that offers a civics course; we might educate ourselves on local issues, vote for candidates at the city level (or run ourselves), and support that candidate up to the federal level over the course of 40 years. I did mention that lasting change is a marathon, right?
Today, identify the one or two causes that truly inspire you, whether or not they’re currently trending on Twitter. This might be racial equality, recycling, LGBT right, veganism, or anything else. Decide on one monthly action to support that organization, whether through personal involvement, small donations, or initiating proactive discussions.
As everyone else is clicking buttons to signify their support, you can feel good knowing that you are taking action to promote the change you wish to see in the world.