Clicking a link/signing an online petition is not nearly enough (goes the argument) — and worse than that, doing these things gives people a false sense of achievement. Having re-tweeted some punchy hashtag (the argument continues), people think they’ve “helped,” and move on to their reality-TV-watching, double-cheeseburger-eating lives, now freed of any sense that they might need to do anything truly useful.
Inevitably, any social campaign that goes viral leads to a great deal of such handwringing — as one headline recently put it: “Is ‘clicktivism’ destroying meaningful social activism?”
But the question is far from new: I recall the wrath of an old friend when I had the temerity to suggest many years ago that folks could help raise funds for hunger relief via The Hunger Site (where I still click, by the way, on a nearly daily basis, along with all the other clickable causes that GreaterGood Network now supports).
Here’s what I don’t understand about the question, though: What world do these people live in? Or, alternatively: What past are they remembering? Did they once live in a world peopled with passionate social activists burning with a sense of mission, ready to chuck it all, or at least the occasional evening, for the sake of repairing the world?
Because in the world in which I live, and in the past that I remember, most people have never known very much about the world beyond their own bills and laundry piles, and even fewer have ever had the energy, wherewithal, or time to really get involved. For a lot of people, the 30-second investment of clicking a link, learning a few facts, and auto-filling an on-line form is, in fact, change.
I don’t really blame non-activists much for being non-activists. We all have a lot to deal with, and it can be draining to consistently choose to focus on heartbreaking news rather than on getting a break from lousy jobs or difficult family lives. You can’t organize people where you want them to be, you can only organize them where they are — and most people are already pretty busy.
On the other hand, people who are the type to do more than sign an online petition — will do more than sign an online petition. People who are the type to dedicate themselves wholesale to a cause — will dedicate themselves wholesale to a cause. Folks in either of those camps are not (in my estimation) likely to say “You know what? I was going make a nice donation/stage a sit-in, but now that I’ve Facebooked that URL, my work here is done!”
On the other hand, quick-and-easy activism does allow for at least four positive goods:
- People who might otherwise have had no interest, or inclination to be interested, suddenly find themselves a little better informed. Will that lead anywhere? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s useful to remember that increasing knowledge is the only thing that has ever led to action.
- By sheer dint of numbers, issues that had been entirely relegated to the back-burner of public discourse come to the fore (witness the on-going actions against Rush Limbaugh).
- On certain issues, every little bit actually does count — all those $10 donations texted to the Red Cross in the wake of natural disasters actually do add up (see also: Mass Action Is Only Possible If You Have A Mass Of People), and,
- Those of us who, by virtue of being human, find ourselves incapable of keeping up with all the issues that genuinely matter to us have a way to stay connected to communities and issues for which we would otherwise simply have no time.
Nothing achieved with human hands will ever be perfect. Money will sometimes be misspent, people’s good will misdirected, problems made not better but worse by our involvement. We can only try, and inevitably fail.
Those of us who are deeply involved with an issue have a real and clear moral responsibility to do our best to keep all of that to a minimum. But in the world in which I live, at some point, we’re going to fail.
And it seems to me that shaming people for trying their best isn’t a particularly good way to counter that — or to get them more involved.