How real is activism when it’s online?
by Emily Eagen
I hate running. It drives me crazy. I have to hit a treadmill with a movie or a book if I want to run for any significant length of time. I don’t mind it if I’m playing a game. Football, Capture the Flag, Tag — there’s a purpose to it then. An objective. I am running with a clear and attainable goal. But running for the sake of itself, with no particular object in sight… I’ve never really understood it. It is reminiscent of how I felt in so many literature theory classes when we would discuss a symbol or sentence for hours on end, intent on sounding intelligent (or at least proving to our professor that we were halfway competent). All the while the real world was left utterly unchanged and I was left wondering what the point of all this talk was. I left literature theory classes behind me when I graduated in May, but as the flood of Ferguson posts trickles out of my newsfeed and into obscurity like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and #bringbackourgirls before it, I am left wondering once again: what is the point?
For a time.
It takes about two weeks for the sound to peter and less than a month for it to die away. Public interest is soon snared by a new issue, a new cause, a new hashtag. Perhaps it is not so surprising. As long as there are people in the world, there will be no shortage of injustice, and injustice must be brought to light! Then again… perhaps our ever-shifting focus on issues of social justice is rooted in something rather less noble than a heartfelt desire to redress the many evils of the world. Perhaps it is rooted more in our desire to prove our own well-informed, up-to-date opinions and innate, personal goodness (to ourselves as much as to others).
Before you dismiss me as a cynical, self-righteous 20-something, consider the #bringbackourgirls movement of last spring. On April 14, 2014, more than 270 girls were abducted from a school in Chibok, Nigeria by the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram. A few dozen managed to escape. 219 did not. In outrage, the international community took to social media with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, a call for action not only from the Nigerian government, but from world powers like the U.N. Almost nine months have passed. The hashtags have stopped, yet not a single girl has been rescued. While the crisis is still very real in the eyes of the Nigerian people — especially the parents, families, and friends of the missing girls — it has been all but expunged from global memory. All that remains are the desperate pleas of a handful of people begging the international community not to abandon the call for the girls’ safe return. In an interview with Al Jazeera, protest coordinator Hadiza Bala Usman said, “We appreciate the fact that the media propelled a lot of support around the world, but that support has not translated into any rescue. For us, if whatever is said and done doesn’t translate into the rescue of the girls, it hasn’t really achieved anything.”
Perhaps that is what is most concerning about social justice via social media — not that it fails to effect change, but that it so successfully allows its users to maintain the illusion that we are the good guys. We are the ones making a difference by the all-exhausting task of hitting “like” or sending out a whole 140 characters of outrage against racism. It allows us to paint ourselves in colors nobler than those we possess in daily life, enables us to rage against the very real, very pressing injustices of the world — and sometimes the perceived ones — while ignoring the shortcomings in our own lives. Social media allows us to feed our self-absorption without forcing us to actually do anything, all while removing the pesky little matter of accountability.
It wasn’t until the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge swept social media this summer that people finally began to detect the trend. Aimed at raising research funds for the progressive neurodegenerative disease, the ALS Challenge garnered a striking response as well as the support and thanks of the ALS Association. Nonetheless, many criticized the Challenge as a fad that people were only interested in because it was an entertaining and convenient way to look like you actually cared about other people. The Association may be grateful for the funds, but how many people walked away actually understanding the horror of ALS, let alone caring? Now that summer is long gone and winter has set in, there’s never a murmur about it. Even the criticisms have died away, leaving us to pat ourselves on the back in peace. Not that we would say it that way, of course. We’re more refined than that. We cloak our narcissism in silver-tongued moralism (it’s harder to detect than a selfie).
Andy Warhol is attributed with saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Whether that has come true for people or not, it certainly seems to be true of social justice. When an issue’s fifteen minutes pass, when we’re done clanging our pots and pans together, when we’re done with our rants and our marches and our trendy moralism — then the only voices left crying are the initiators: the families of the victims in the Peshawar school attack, the parents of the more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls in Chibok, the man watching in fear as his own body deteriorates under the effects of ALS.
If we genuinely care about an issue, we need to focus less on letting other people see the good we are doing and focus more on doing it. Yes, there is glory and self-satisfaction in a one-time donation, a single march against racism, or a handful of outraged posts. It bears a vague resemblance to martyrdom: a sacrifice, given but once, honored by all. There is glory in martyrdom. Unlike martyrdom, however, our sacrifices are miniscule, springing up like weeds and withering away the moment an issue’s fifteen minutes of sunlit glory have passed. There is immediate gratification in social media’s take on social justice—the instant influx of affirming likes, shares, and comments. By contrast, there is precious little thanks in the daily grind of real life. Nonetheless, it is in the daily grind of life, the consistent living out of the beliefs we claim, that change is effected. It is easy to die — or tweet — for what you believe in. It is far more difficult to live for it.
Emily Eagen is an articles editor for the magazine.