The Personalist Project

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Impersonal Activism

Ian Skemp, Sep 11, 2015

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.