The Personalist Project

I feel this post is a tad unwieldy, so please bear with me and let me know if clarification is needed.

For some time, I’ve been vainly trying to articulate my aversion to hashtag movements and similar endeavors (sign this petition! Like and share if you agree!). Why does it bother me when people attach themselves to a cause? I don’t think it’s an innocuous irritation or just me being a grump. There is a problem lurking in how freely we put our names to a multitude of causes.

First, I am not merely talking about causes I disagree with. My problem with “#standwithplannedparenthood” has everything to do with my opposition to that organization, and little to do with the hashtag. The widespread outrage over Cecil the lion baffled me for the mere absurdity of it, regardless of how that outrage was expressed. What originally got me thinking was when I rolled my eyes at causes I agreed with. Joseph Kony kidnaps children and forces them to be child soldiers? Horrendous. Boko Haram kidnaps women and sells them into slavery? Humanity at its worst. We are right to condemn such actions. I disapprove of them and pray for all involved, but I never joined the chorus, and I don’t plan to, either.

Why not? Aside from the naiveté and lack of real change, I object to the impersonal nature of slacktivism. Rather than establishing a greater connection between human beings on a personal level, it reduces people to victims that need a savior, or villains that need comeuppance. Slacktivism preys upon our egos, and the result is that it becomes less about other people and more about us. How? It gives us a sense of pride and accomplishment with minimal effort. We trick ourselves into thinking we took part in a great activist movement, when all we did was click a button.

I see this played out in two different ways. First, when we try to help people in need, but in an impersonal way. A surge in awareness about Joseph Kony in 2012 resulted in widespread media attention and even increased action on the part of the US government to hunt down this man. The desire for justice is normal and good.  He has yet to be captured, and there is still a lot of violence in Uganda, but everyone who shared that video or put up posters can pat themselves on the back for making a difference. Whatever difference they made, however, was superficial. We’ve moved on from Uganda and few people seem to care what’s going on there. If your contribution to a cause is to be meaningful, you can’t abandon it so freely. You need to confront and learn about the complexities of the situation, and become deeply involved in the endeavor. I’m reminded of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The only reason that was successful was because of a strong commitment on the part of the community to persist. They had that commitment because segregation was something they experienced themselves. It was personal. If you lack a personal connection to the cause, maintaining that commitment is difficult. This is not to say we can’t take up a cause that does not affect us directly, we just need to approach it on a more intimate level, which takes some effort. I firmly believe that bringing a meal to a family in need carries more weight than tweeting support for a cause. 

The second way this plays out is more overtly malicious. It’s when we reduce someone we’ve never met before to “bad guy,” and pounce on them in a mob frenzy. This NYT article explains the situation well enough. Over ten thousand people, completely detached from the incident, with no connection to Justine Sacco, found it worthwhile to label her a monster and publicly attack her. No concern for her well-being is expressed. She gets fired from her job, and people rejoice at her misfortune. While I think the tweet that did her in was rather dumb, the widespread reaction was callous and unmerciful. To wish injury on another is a grave sin.

Here is the great error in both situations: A narrative is created that is indifferent to the personhood of those involved. At best, we get to be the heroes without helping anyone. We’re delusional, but at least we haven’t actively hurt anyone. At its worst, we reduce human beings to two-dimensional players in the narrative we’ve created to boost our egos. In between, we oversimplify complex situations, thus freely and recklessly spreading misinformation about everything from war crimes in Uganda to the alleged racism of random individuals.

To summarize, my aversion goes beyond the medium of social media. It’s a sign of our fallen nature to depersonalize other people. Social media just makes it too easy. 

Comments (8)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Sep 12, 2015 3:23pm

Interesting post, Ian. I've never investigated the reasons for my own aversion to slactivism (great term!) but I think they are similar to yours. Thanks for beginning to articulate them. (Another, very different reason for my aversion is the fact that every click is recorded and used for marketing purposes.)

The NYT article you link to is very helpful. It brings home powerfully the point that is so easy to overlook in a globalized and virtualized context: that real persons, real lives, are involved in all of it.

P.s. Have you listened to David Thunder's lecture on Christian Charity in a Globalized World? It is on similar themes.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Sep 12, 2015 3:33pm

The case has been made in recent years that what goes on in the nation's classrooms should be recorded. Being a teacher myself, I feel very uncomfortable with that idea. It's not that I have anything to hide or feel that my interaction with students can't see the light of day. But, like everyone else, I frequently say something I wish I hadn't, use an unfortunate phrase or bad example. To be constantly exposed to an anonymous, uninvolved but critical public, is just too much scrutiny to bear.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Sep 12, 2015 4:08pm

I’m reminded of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The only reason that was successful was because of a strong commitment on the part of the community to persist. They had that commitment because segregation was something they experienced themselves. 

I love this point. MLK, Jr. frequently emphasized, too, how indispensable the pre-boycott work of training was, which gave the participants the vision and discipline they needed to resist without committing violence.

If we want to help, we have to be willing to take on some real suffering.

It's a hard lesson, but true, I think.

Rhett Segall

#4, Sep 14, 2015 10:32am


You rebel at “signing a petition”. You see this as a rationalization so that a person can salve their conscience without any real involvement . Jules and Katie agree.

There are other things to consider.  Right to life groups want their members to send a notice to a member of congress to vote for or against a bill. We must realize that the congress person will be getting notifications for and against the bill.  If the notifications are totally lopsided then I suspect it will influence the judgment of the congress. In this sense I think numbers count and are analogous to signed manifestos. However, I do think the person signing ought to study the issue first. This would apply also to financial contributions we make

Rhett Segall

#5, Sep 14, 2015 10:34am

It’s not always easy to grasp the complexities of a situation. For example, the Jewish Voice for Peace regularly asks me to “click” and “send” a notice to the powers that be. In addition, they regularly ask for donations. It’s very difficult to know what’s best in this situation.I pull back from "clicking" until I have the proper understanding.

Rhett Segall

#6, Sep 16, 2015 6:32am


I came across this statement of Thomas Merton yesterday. He has the same perspective you do. He's talking in the context of the VN war:

"I wonder what a man can do in such a society? Signing petitions and printing them as ads in the paper surely has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had!" (August 25, 1965)

Thought you'd be interested.



Ian Skemp

#7, Sep 16, 2015 2:30pm


I'm reminded of the University of MN campus during my undergrad years (04-08). I remember one day noticing a number of students absent from class. Later I found out that there was a walk-out in protest of the War in Iraq. "How in the world," I thought, "does skipping an art history class do anything to stop the War in Iraq? What good comes of it?" Well, exactly as you say. You rebel. Rebellion gives one a sort of high. Unfortunately, your elation is petty. Nothing is gained, and you missed out on a great class on Neo-Classical art.

Ian Skemp

#8, Sep 16, 2015 2:31pm


Unfortunately, slacktivism is not a term of my own. I don't know who coined it, but it works so well because it speaks to the lack of effort put into understanding a situation before passing judgment. Thousands pounced on the couple who refused to tip the waitress in NY because she was gay, even donating money to her (why? emotional damage?)only to find out the waitress lied about the whole thing, and the couple actually tipped her well. Precisely why recordings of classrooms are a bad idea. Touchy subjects could not be discussed in class for fear they may be taken out of context. Who has time to defend themselves against random strangers online? Even if cleared, the damage may be permanent. 

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