Bar Discussion: Slacktivism

Like a flock of seagulls going after food, a horde of canvassers turned to me and started waving and walking in my direction as I arrived onto Astor Place. Their bright-colored parkas are like warning signs to pedestrians, their clipboards and pamphlets in hand, a provoking question at the ready.

“Do you care about animals?” they asked. “Do you care about the environment?” they pleaded. “Do you care about anything?” I thought to myself. Of course I do, I thought as if I was trying to convince myself.

As they advanced closer, I turned up the volume of my music, held myself straight, and maintained my speed - not willing to stop for them. What would I say to them? What can I offer them? Can they tell I don't know what I'm talking about? The woman with the bright orange jacket asked another question to which I answered “No, thank you,” and briskly continued on my way to a class about philosophy and ethics, ironically. As I walked away, I whispered apologies to the canvasser as the guilt bubbled up inside me.

“Why don’t you ever contribute?” I usually ask myself. Because I’m a slacker. Even in the age of Trump, when so many people march against him and call their Congressional representatives to support rights, I do not get off my ass to take concrete action because I do not think my efforts are worthwhile. I hide behind my screen, obsessively read everything on my newsfeed and whatever my friends share on Facebook.

I believe in ideas, but maybe I don't believe in them enough to go out and do something about them. Maybe it’s too much effort, and maybe I give up too quickly. I cross the street and avoid eye contact with any canvasser I see from a block away or pretend to be on the phone when they start catching up to me. The extent of my contributions to any cause includes – and is limited to – signing online petitions, recycling when I feel like it, and sharing the occasional article on Facebook. I’m afraid to participate because I don’t know how I can make a difference. At the same time, I’m insecure about falling into the trap of being a slacktivist, tricking myself into believing I am making a difference, knowing fully that I am not.

“You’re not a slacktivist!” exclaimed my friend, Akash. Looking for support from a peer, I confided in him my guilt for not marching in the Women’s March or other protests against  the Trump administration

We argued about our perceptions of slacktivism and activism in today’s day and age.  “I just think that slacktivism today is not ‘apathetic,’ rather ‘Look at me care about this!’” It reminded him of virtue signaling or something egotistical like volunteer tourism. “It only makes the person doing it feel better about themselves,” he argued.

“That’s not who you are, I know you care!” he said to comfort me. “It’s just that you’re finding out how best to contribute.” That was reassuring, in a way.

Akash is more politically engaged than I am – professionally, personally, socially, but sometimes faces criticism. “I think an activist today is someone who is on the street, protesting, marching,” he said. “Activists would see themselves in the more traditional ‘activist’ role which is what you think of in the civil rights or independence movements.”

His ways of contributing – working in government, in media, in creating debates for the campus community – is political engagement in a different light. Yet as the president of the Review & Debates at NYU, he had been told that all their closed room debates do is add more to the “intellectual masturbation” in their ivory towers.

Even if the groups that engage in activism or slacktivism sometimes do not intersect and might also look down on each other, their different ways of solving problems and different approaches and focuses don’t make any of them better than the other. Ultimately, what connects us is this sense of drive, to make a change, to help people and make things better.

We beat ourselves over the fact that we can’t help or care about everything. But if we have the drive, that’s already a step. The word activist is glorified and lionized into this figure, according to Akash, it’s just a lot of ego. “I’m just an active citizen, I’ve taken an active interest in reading and understanding what’s going on, and I discuss and debate,” he asserted. For him, that’s already a lot.

George Bernard Shaw said that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

“The core tenets are caring about what’s going on, being willing to fight for what you believe in, in the streets, in debates, in conversation, and not looking down on people for doing the things the other way that things are supposed to be,” Akash added.   

Social media plays a role in the public discussion that cannot be overlooked. Examples from over the years show that people’s actions online contribute to a broader debate. The Black Lives Matter movement stemmed from a hashtag in 2013 into a full grown coherent movement with a huge following. The Women’s March in January 2017 (and this year’s, too) was also organized essentially online.

“In the past, political posts on social media were vilified for their inability to affect real change,” Jonathan Moyer, a writer for Better Life Lab and staff member of the 2016 Clinton Campaign, wrote in a 2017 article for New America. “But successful popular movements show a different reality. When people feel that they have a legitimate grievance to redress, they will go to great lengths to make it known.”

When our discussion returned to slacktivism, Akash added he didn’t think it was all wrong. “In today’s world, a lot of credence, of support, is given to people for just liking things (on social media), because it shows that coalitions are being built and ideas are being supported,” he explained.

The line delineating the effectiveness of slacktivism is all the more blurred since online content is so easily accessible by your friends. “I read my friends’ ideas and I think about them, and I talk to them if I want to clarify or push back on them,” he said.

When I relayed my frustration towards canvassers, Akash was also critical. “[They are] People who pester me on the street, saying ‘sign this, sign that,’ when I know most of it just ends up in this vortex of change.org petitions and doesn’t lead to anything.”

In light of this, he doesn’t think that marching is as effective as it appears to be. How does your attendance to a march concretely matter? “It only adds to the graph… But if you are retweeting something, if you are sharing something, if you are making something trend [on Twitter], doesn’t that have the same effect?” These are all ways to engage in public discussion, to reinforce a sense of presence in civil society and in the political sphere.

“So to hell with slacktivism and this guilt! If you know you care, no one should have to tell you otherwise,” Akash resolved. In the true manner of a professional debater, his closing statements truly closed the topic: “What unites us is this sense of duty whether it is patriotism or just compassion, and caring about creating a better age for tomorrow.” Case tabled, next topic.