The McJunkin report: Slacktivism and tragedy

By Jonathan McJunkin

This is, unfortunately, the second time in the two-piece history of this “column” that I’ve written about the Internet. I apologize. I was just particularly struck by one of the more annoying and indicative-of-our-times aspects of Facebook: slacktivism, particularly the variety that comes around every time a celebrity passes away. What is slacktivism? It’s a combination of “slacker” and “activism,” and according to Wikipedia, “the word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes ‘feel-good’ measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.” We see examples of this everywhere—when we rant about politicians on Twitter, or join Facebook events “standing in support of” some cause, or copy and paste statuses that spread awareness of the problem of dolphin hegemony or whatever. Intrinsically, there’s nothing wrong with this. Social media is a space for communication, and there’s no reason not to share your views on issues or show your support for causes. I’m positive that as aware and informed young students we’ve all done our fair share of slacktivism. The key, as with any guilty pleasure, is to be real with yourself about what you’re actually doing. When I write a cuttingly witty tweet about Newt Gingrich, I’m under no illusions that I’m really doing anything to change his rhetoric on the “invented” Palestinian people. Ideas are powerful, but the very format of social networking limits you to the most basic and banal ideas—ideas that aren’t likely to make a difference and frankly aren’t supposed to. There’s a reason the Declaration of Independence doesn’t read: “Life, liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness. Being a colony sucks yo. They plunder our seas and burn our towns #Independence #suckitKingGeorge.” Nevertheless, it’s still fun to share with your friends. Though Facebook political discussions are generally awful, I’ve read some legitimately enlightening reasoning there, and I must confess that I get a certain illicit buzz out of intellectually posterizing high school Sophomores who ask “where is WHITE history month??” Slacktivism is fine as long as it’s seen as just talking, and it’s even more allowable and less annoying if the person doing it is also doing real activism in the real world. The worst kind of slacktivism is the kind that violates both of these caveats—it says nothing of value and in no way connects to any kind of real world action. Perversely, it seems to be the kind that is sent out with the least self-awareness, with the conviction that by reposting the same image macro you used last month when Steve Jobs died you are somehow making a profound statement about the media or world hunger or (my favorite) “society,” also referred to as “this world we live in today.” Looked at as a narrative, Whitney Houston’s death is a tragedy. Hers was one of the great voices of our time, and her Super Bowl National Anthem would give any American chills. Though she contributed legendary love songs to the canon, her own love life with husband Bobby Brown was tumultuous and intensely public. Like so many stars before her, Houston’s career was held back by substance abuse, and her death was both surprising and seen as a sad inevitability. It’s the classic archetype: an incredible talent rising to worldwide prominence before being consumed by the excesses that come with it. Even without following her closely, we knew her story. Humans use narrative to understand everything—even the events in our own lives are turned into stories with characters and plot trajectories—and we respond strongly to a good story. Houston is just one person, but her story is bigger than that. When she passed, it was sad even for those with no connection to her precisely for this reason. Famine and needless death is a tragedy as well, but not one that can be so instantly conveyed. It’s not possible to do justice to everything implicated in child hunger in a single paragraph, but to put it in two words, it’s complicated. Famine is more an issue of of political structures that lead to harmful growing practices and tragically ineffective distribution networks than simple food shortages. All this is tipped further into crisis by natural disasters such as droughts. The wasted potential of an artist taken before her time is nothing compared to that of a child that lives their whole life in hunger and deprivation. Trying to say anything meaningful about this with a picture of visible ribs and sad faces and a fragment that says “million die” is insulting. Let’s examine the second part of the statement: no one cries. Really? No one cares about child starvation? Tell that to Oxfam, tell that to Comic Relief, tell that to the Red Cross, tell that to America’s Second Harvest. You don’t have to be actively involved to speak to a particular movement, but there are so many things that could be promoted that might at least tangentially do something to help the situation. Simply saying “no one cares about this, that sucks” without actively considering anything about it yourself is saying less than nothing. There is no dichotomy between being sad about a singer’s talent squandered and being concerned or furious about some of the world’s most fundamental injustices. To suggest that setting them opposite each other is some kind of societal commentary is to belittle the power of human stories, de-emphasize real work and discourse on world poverty and make the presenter into the worst kind of cynic—one that doesn’t look beyond the surface and creates fatalism rather than insight. Slacktavism is fine, but when you reduce starvation to “something more important than Whitney Houston” you need to reconsider whether you are saying something profound about society or less than nothing about anything.