Thanks to Tim St. John at ACUI Boston, I started to dig more and more into the concept of slacktivism following a discussion on Kony 2012. I was going to insert the Wikipedia definition of slacktivist here, but I thought this piece of the wikipedia article was much more biting:
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS describes the term “slacktivist”, saying it “posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change”
Like ouch, right? Not truly engaged or devoted to making a change. That’s pretty burn right there. But that was the definition I was operating on at the time, and that definition has since shifted and changed the more I have read about the concept and its evolution in its relatively short lifespan. Kony 2012 brought slacktivism to the forefront, and as I understand the development of that phenomenon now, the bulk of people participating were slacktivists, and here’s why.
It’s not that they were just liking and sharing a YouTube video on Facebook, or they were making it their profile pictures or statusi (I know that isn’t the plural, but I find it funny), or they were hashtagging #kony2012 on Twitter, all to bring awareness to the existence of a guy, whom ALL of us can agree, is a bad, bad man. What made them slacktivists though, was they had not done any research beyond a 30 minute YouTube video, that they had watched this one video, and that was it, they were on board with Kony 2012, and the organization behind it. What they didn’t realize was that the organization behind it, basically the guys who did Invisible Children, was pretty sketch, with some VERY questionable financial statements and usage of donation money, a very troublesome board of leaders who represented the organization publicly in a terrible light, and had some very troubling connections with African governments who were doing the same horrific things to children in their countries as Kony was.
It is that lack of research and simple sharing to “build awareness” so that the world could know Kony, without a larger discussion and analysis of what was going on in the background that leads me to label many people who engaged in Kony 2012 as slacktivists.
A different dynamic of the slacktivist discussion that I have recently come into learning about is, in fact, something I wrote about awhile ago without realizing, and I labelled it differently (I’ll be honest, I thought I was totally original and groundbreaking, haha, not), in a post called “service…”. What is really the consumer side of slacktivism, I called commercial service, is another major aspect of the slacktivism issue that transcends the Facebook campaigns “If Billy gets 100 billion likes, his cancer will be cured!” or the Kony 2012 poster plastering on 4/20 (because you just ruined your eco-cred).
In Bryce Hughes’s post “Slacktivists can change the world”, which by the way, is an absolutely essential read, he summarizes consumer slacktivism nicely, bringing up some major issues around one of the most famous campaigns, (RED). There has to be an examination beyond just buying to move away from the negative version of slacktivist into the more positive connotation for slacktivist that others talking on this issue focus on more often. What is GAP doing with that money from the (RED) campaign, or the numerous other companies that took part as well? What about companies that created product to help support Haiti and Japan after natural disasters completely devastated parts of their countries? Are we sure they are the right people we should be donating our money too, or would we be better served giving it to the Red Cross or organizations sponsored by the United Nations? Maybe (my brain says most likely), but do we get swag from the Red Cross or the UN? No, but we get swag from our consumer slacktivism/commercial service. And, unfortunately, that is what matters for many people when it comes to these issues where they want to help. They want to make sure others knew they helped (wow, that sounds really cynical of me…)
Take TOMS for example, one of the ultimate examples of consumer slacktivism, because if you buy a pair, they give away a pair. However (and I own two pairs prior to doing my own research, oh yeah, I’m very flawed, trust me, I know), they are not without controversy.
…TOMS-haters point out that TOMS’ marketing pitch dehumanizes poor people and sets priorities for them, rather than letting them set their own. Plus, they explain, giving away shoes for free distorts local shoe markets, thereby eliminating local profits, creating more poverty, and thus creating more need for hand-outs.…
The first point in the quote above is a biggie, because in any service learning class, one of the core concepts you learn is that you are doing it wrong if you are doing the service FOR others, rather than in collaboration and consultation and WITH others. Additionally, the economic argument pointed out above is one that TOMS should answer to and work with. To go into a situation where you will engage in service, which consumer slacktivism is, without researching and understanding what you are buying into (how much profit is GAP getting off that (RED) shirt you just bought?), you are buying into negative slacktivist levels.
That is what we must avoid… not slacktivism itself, but negative slacktivism, slacktivism without any consideration for what we are truly liking, sharing, hashtagging, or buying.
So, as Bryce Hughes calls us to do in his post, how do we get students to default to that critical thinking about the world around them, to question and learn, to critique and celebrate, rather than just liking the page “If this page gets 2 Bajatribrullion Likes, I will build a new McDonald’s for all the KONY kids after taking him out with my own bare hands!!!”
My thanks go out to @BryceEHughes, @timstjohn, and @jeffbc94 for their contributions, thoughts, or continued thought towards this topic which allowed me to rant excessively and not make much sense.