A 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.
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.
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?