Political Activism in a Social Media Age

Number 1 of a new #ryansrant series

If it were possible to shame someone out of a racist or sexist attitude then we might expect to see a lot more harmony and community within our culture than we currently do. One of the specialties of our social media age is the way in which it allows users to share their opinion on every conceivable topic without the necessity of having to listen to another persons point of view. It’s a world of noise, aggression and constant self-promotion, and it’s within such an environment that much of our political and social justice discourse is taking place. But is anything really changing in regards to racism, sexism or whatever other ‘ism’ or ‘phobia’ one cares to list? My answer is a resounding no. Here’s why:

Online offence taking and outrage are the dearest friends of the political status quo, and this is because we have lazily allowed ourselves to become easily appeased with words alone. What matters is not how someone lives, but what they publicly say. If, for example, a sports star (probably a Rugby player) is hurled before the court of public opinion (Twitter) for a misogynistic remark, the only penance we as a society actually require is that he do a good job of saying sorry at the requisite press conference. This frees us up to continue the search for the next source of our offence taking game. And while the sports star may have been reprimanded publicly, behind closed doors attitudes are likely to have remained unchanged. This is because he (and his management) know that all that’s required in the face of social media crime is to give the appearance of contriteness and shame. The absurdity of all this genuinely baffles me, but the fault lies largely with ourselves for being so easily pacified. The narcissism of this form of activism, which only sees value in protest so long as it’s public and validated by our friends, is the most significant reason as to why online activism is so ineffectual when it comes to instigating change.

In fact, it might well be worse than ineffectual. It might actually be harmful. Because posting political memes to Facebook and shaming a misogynist on Twitter take place within a public sphere, we are lulled into an illusory state in which we think that a change is actually taking place. We post a meme protesting the sexism of Donald Trump and we think we have somehow contributed something to the debate. In reality, all that’s happening is that the objects of our shaming are learning to keep their mouths shut or to vent their attitudes in safer environments, content in the knowledge that in a day or two everyone will have forgotten what they were so upset about anyway. Hearts and attitudes remain the same, because hate and shame (and the political left seem to do both of these spectacularly well) are impotent when it comes to changing a persons mind. Instead, we need to listen and converse with a genuine desire to hear opinions that we don’t agree with. Alas, this art appears lost.

The solution, as I see it, lies in a more personal, silent activism. I remember back when the ‘occupy’ movement was in full swing. The idea that big banks would respond with an outpouring of conscience to a mass of people parked outside their buildings was laughable to begin with. What was perhaps more amusing, however, is the way in which everyone that attended the occupy rallies had actual power to hit the banks hard, but it was not utilized. All these people had to do was go home, call their bank, close their accounts and transfer their funds to a credit union. If everyone did this you can be sure the banks would have noticed. I can only surmise that the reason this obvious solution didn’t take place was that a) protesters hated banks but not that much, b) it took too much effort or c) the occupy experiment was an act designed primarily to be a performance. Of these, I feel that the performance aspect is the primary motivation behind much activism, and that the cause itself is actually secondary to the display. Activism in a social media age has become just another form of entertainment. Sustainable change will not come about due to a hashtag that has been repeated a million times, but will only happen when we make a concerted effort to actually change the way we live so that it reflects what our values are. This is phenomenally hard to do, and is in fact a life long task that must be undertaken with humility (a seldom used word these days). It is also a task that can largely be done away from the spotlight. This type of activism is both silent and private- concepts that are anathema to the self-promoting generation.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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