To Click or Not to Click

mouse clickA couple of weeks ago I scrolled through my 50 some emails of the day and was struck by one from Crowdrise. The subject line read “Have you saved an animal from extinction?” It was a 24 hour emergency campaign to save the Greater Bamboo Lemur in Madagascar. I glanced, saw there was video, and hit delete. The world is too big, I told myself, and I know too much already about the suffering of humans, animals and the planet itself. But the question has hung in my mind and led me to think about activism.  How do we choose what to spend our time and energy on? How can we be most effective?

If I ask myself Have I saved an animal from extinction? the answer is obviously “no.” Would I like to? Of course. How should I choose among the thousands of animals that need saving? One from the World Wildlife Fund’s top ten?  The one that is the closest to home, the most exotic, the cutest? Or, the one that appears in my inbox? What should I do to save it? Take a trip to Madagascar or Alaska or wherever? Send money? Watch the video and click “like,” instantly bombarding  all my Facebook friends with the same problem?

Those choosing social media and digital activism have become known as slacktivists, the armchair activists who participate in the world by signing online petitions, “liking” on Facebook, “sharing” with all your connections, maybe sending money. The term can also include those of us who sport bumperstickers, wristbands and Tshirts with messages, and buy from socially conscious companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Paul Newman.

The Air Force drone, MQ-9 Reaper, formerly known as the Predator B

Critics would say that these are all ways of pacifying our consciences, assuaging guilt and kidding ourselves that we are making a difference. Real activism, they say, means educating yourself, choosing your cause wisely, committing your time, energy and other support to the effort, joining with others in protests or actions that have an impact and maybe include risk. I have a friend in his 80s who just got back from Creech Air Force Base protesting the use of drones that wage remote warfare, often with disastrous consequences for innocent people. He hoped to be arrested and he was. I admire him immensely and I think his form of activism is the best, the gold standard.

I don’t want to criticize anyone for how they choose to deal with this overwhelming world we find ourselves in. If you want to hide in a cave and meditate, cut off from all the bad news, I understand. If you choose to lead a good life, be a good parent, partner, and citizen, recycle and drive a Prius, more power to you. If you are driven to protest at Creech Air Force Base, you have my admiration and I’d be glad to pitch in for gas.

Or, if you choose to sign every internet petition that touches your heart or causes you outrage, go for it. And if you feel satisfaction that you have accomplished something with that signature, that you have joined a well-intentioned community and you convince others to do the same, why not? I would be sorry, however, if by clicking you are so satisfied that you decide not to bother with a more active step, like organizing or calling a meeting or writing a letter or calling a congressman. But my guess is that most of the chronic “clickers” would not be out in the streets or at Creech anyway, and if they are adding numbers to a righteous voice, that’s a good thing.

I can’t see that it causes any harm, and there are examples – Amnesty International, for instance — where huge numbers signatures have had an impact. In repressive countries, social media, tweeting and its equivalents, are actually very effective and courageous steps to take. The Arab Spring movement was born in a million clicks. And here at home, Bernie Sanders has millions of people clicking monthly to send him $ 27, creating a campaign chest that represents enormous power. There is real power in that armchair, recliner, bar stool or whatever.

greater bamboo lemur
Damn! If I’d known he was this cute, I would have clicked.

So am I a slacktivist? Sure, but I try to be discriminating and not click every green button that comes along. I try to send my money where I am sure it will be wisely used, and this may require some research. And, I try not to forget the power of individual human (not digital) acts, like writing a letter to the editor or to decision-makers, or gathering friends together to strategize about how to make our voice louder. Oh, and most importantly, I try to protect myself from being overwhelmed, or I’ll end up muttering in a cave. My apologies to the Greater Bamboo Lemur.

I would love to know how you feel about slacktivism. Are you one? Do you feel guilty? proud? powerful?



14 thoughts on “To Click or Not to Click”

  1. Lucy, this is a huge topic. I am glad you raised this issue. I will have to sleep on this before I answer. More tomorrow.

  2. Yup, I’m a slacktivist too. I haven’t been arrested for decades, and our last attempt at wheatpasting in Santa Fe was a bust; Canyon Road ain’t Lower Manhattan… But I find that my definition of activism changed when I began to focus on the local. I still click for critters (and people) and hope it means something (though I’m skeptical)….and contact my congress people etc. (though I’m skeptical) but I feel strongly that we can do more by taking responsibility for where we are. I don’t sign stuff to governments of states or countries beyond NM and US. I try to get to important BCC meetings, I try to inform my community by 20 years of newsletter editing and committees…. I wish more retired people (I’m not one) got into volunteering and making noise like your 80-something friend (and some of mine) and I wish we didn’t have to make these awful choices. Choosing your causes wisely is the biggest challenge…

    1. I agree that one of the most agonizing aspects is making the choices about causes when there are so many compelling ones. I think that’s why clicking becomes the solution — we can click on dozens of causes every day and hope that some of those clicks make a difference. And I also agree that local is where we have the best chance of making an impact. We can get educated about local issues and act in a more targeted way.

  3. I’m done w/ the larger world, my mind just too blown.
    And I have trouble w/ the self righteous white children of the ruling class.
    I work in the trenches, but the only thing real to me is my farm and my darling grandchildren.
    Peace and Love

  4. I love your questions and reflections Lucy and appreciate the angst they create in my daily living at times. This piece about how we show up in this era on the planet seems fundamental to the question of what it even is to be a human being. And the wisdom of measuring out the life force within, of care-taking it, an ongoing learning. As I did on FB, I’m going to assume the liberty of linking to recent reflections on these questions on my blog. What Should I Be Doing to Change the World Today?

  5. I know that when I make charitable contributions, I tend to “go basic” — food (Food Depot), water (Waterlines), medical care (Doctors without Borders). And I vote. Online appeals? Not so much.

  6. How do I deal with this overwhelming world – Palestine, voter suppression, wealth distribution, prison reform, melting icecaps, species extinction, etc.? I don’t. I don’t have the knowledge, energy, dedication or diligence to deal with any of these big issues, and I don’t demand that of myself. I peel off little pieces and trust others with more effective resources and capabilities to deal with the big picture. What are my responsibilities to my planet? First, to live my daily life so as to minimize my footprint – to buy Newman’s Own, pee on the compost pile, reduce/reuse/recycle, etc. Second, to lend assistance to those more effective individuals and organizations in the form of monetary contributions, online petitions, rallies, etc. I don’t beat myself up for never having been maced. How do I prioritize my time and effort regarding these issues? Minimum cost, maximum effect, selected causes. For example, gay rights has been a passion of mine for several years. I bought a fairly low-cost cause bracelet and when people asked about it, I got to proselytize. I joined a couple of organizations which kept me up to date on needs and developments. I wrote my congressmen and letters to the editor. All low cost stuff. I focused my attention on gay marriage and ignored AIDS, hate crimes and gender identification issues. As a result of these efforts, combined with those of millions of like-minded people, a great effect was achieved in record time. Sure, I could have taken more active steps, widened my focus, even taken a leadership role, but I did what I was comfortable doing and I don’t feel guilty for not doing more. Finally, where do I fit on the scale from activist through slacktovist to recluse? Yes, I’m your typical slacker, but I have trouble with that continuum and those labels. A typical reading would have the Activist standing in sunlight and the Recluse buried somewhere underground. I think that all of us who do what we can – what we’re comfortable doing – deserve equal standing.

    1. Beautiful, Richard. I especially like your dismissal of the continuum. You’re right, we can be active (like your letter writing, talking to people, etc.) on a chosen issue,and more passive on others, all the while leading the most responsible life we can.

  7. Well. That’s a tough one. To discriminate or not? amongst causes. I mean, where to begin? Abused grown ups, children, animals, architecture…. In the end I did some research and support the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have programs that fight hate groups and try to rescue innocent people from jail. I have little in the way of $$, so it’s the proverbial drop.
    I have trouble not letting all these things get me down. Andre Gide said, “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”
    How else to do it? Or as you say, retreat to a cave. Not helpful.

    1. My mother just about outlived her money, but not quite. Her wish was that anything that was left go to the Southern Poverty Law Center, so I made the donation in her name. It was sizeable enough so that I got a visit from their funding person who had hopes that this was the first of big annual donations from me. I had to tell her she would have to wait until I was gone, and in the meantime I would continue at a rate I could handle. It’s a good group for sure.
      And thank you for the Gide quote which puts things in perspective.

  8. Nice post, Lucy! It certainly made me think, write, delete, write, delete more, stop thinking, have a drink, think again, etc. Now that I’m confused, maybe I’ll offer a few thoughts. I think we all want to make the world a better place — and, we all have different ideas of what a better place looks like, and how to achieve it. The one principle that I revert to is that I feel I can make the greatest positive change to that what’s nearest to me — starting with the stuff that floating around in my head, and then moving outward. Accordingly, I try to focus on what I can directly impact. When my focus is outside of my typical sphere of influence, and I’m deeply moved by an issue, then I reserve my right to support that issue from a distance. With the evolution of technology, it seems like we’re in the golden age of supporting causes from a distance. Am I overwhelmed with causes and injustices? Yep. The world is full of suffering, and if you pay close attention, the internet will make sure you know about it. Am I making a difference? I can’t tell entirely. I do my research, and I’m discerning. But, there’s always some degree of faith. And, I’m okay with that. As an aside, I’ve seen the greater bamboo lemur in the wild. And, I met the woman who re-discovered the GBL, and was able to work with the government in Madagascar to create Ranomafana National Park. The park was established to protect the species, as well as several other lemur species, which are some of the most engendered mammals in the world. Of course, there were some negative and some positive human impacts from the creation of park, as well. For the record, this isn’t to stir up support for the lemurs, or the people of Madagascar. It’s just a side effect of having a partner that studies lemurs for a living. ; )

    1. Thanks, Brian, for your thoughtfulness about this. And I’m fascinated with my now “two degrees of separation” from the Greater Bamboo Lemur. He (and she)suddenly have become much more real to me, much more than a random click. Interesting what a difference a personal connection makes…even as remote as this.

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