Social change needs more than just marches and megaphones (The Guardian)

I wrote something fairly short and to-the-point for The Guardian last week on why it’s unfair and counter-productive to dismiss ‘slacktivism’ as quickly as we often do. I felt like the subject merited a bit more discussion so I’ve posted both the Guardian article and the long, unedited version of my thoughts before I stripped it down for publishing.

Don’t condemn online protest. Activism needs all the help it can get. (Originally published in The Guardian)

The revolution will not be televised, apparently. At least not on an iPhone screen if critics of slactivism are to be believed.

Those most in need of social change often face numerous barriers to participating in traditional activism. Disabled people can be restricted by physical access, migrants may have visas at stake and low-income workers may be without the time or money to travel and take part in a march. Writing off those who are unable to participate risks creating an activist hierarchy – where gains are supposedly made for the most marginalised, but their voices are shut out and ignored.

There is also a debate to be had around giving traditional methods of campaigning higher status than others. As our lives are increasingly online and the boundaries between physical and digital life blur, it makes sense for protest tactics to evolve accordingly.

It’s true that a e-petition won’t start a revolution, but protest marches do not achieve their aims every time, either. Yes, not all online activism is immediately productive – sharing images to raise awareness of cancer hardly seems necessary in a country where it affects 2.5 million people – but just as we don’t lump Live Aid singles in with door-to-door donation drives, there is a diversity of activism to be found on the internet, and not all of it is lacks substance or value.

Take, for instance, the recent Anthony Nolan-backed Match4Laracampaign,which resulted in a rare stem cell tissue match for student Lara Casalotti, a feat only made possible by social media. Likewise, my own student activism saw online engagement converted into direct action when a last-minute protest amassed 200 participants thanks to a Facebook event that reached thousands of people within a day.

Rather than lamenting the death of “real” activism, charities would benefit from understanding what participation really means: true social change will only be achieved by creating new, diverse activists, and by embracing the plethora of tactics that allow them to engage in the first place. Because if social change is achieved at the expense of those already disadvantaged, has it really achieved much at all?

Longread version

At some point during my degree I remember getting obsessed with a community called the Bedouin. They were Egyptian tent-dwelling people introduced to us in a Social Anthropology module; a deeply patriarchal society where women were subordinated in almost every way. With little or no resource to challenge their second-class status, the women instead developed strategies of coping and resistance, waiting until the men had gone out to gather together and sing communal songs – rude songs which poked fun at the men, ridiculing the size of their genitals and their poor hunting abilities.

An impassioned 18-year-old me – spurred on by an infantile sense of humour combined with a stubborn feminist streak which appointed these women my new heroes – wrote an essay that year about resistance, arguing that the Bedouin women made use of the only resources available to them to build a coping mechanism, and that this in itself constituted resistance and protest against a societal order they were not happy with. When no other options are accessible to you, went the argument, strategies for survival are in themselves an act of resistance.

A belief that protest should be considered in its most general sense is something I’ve carried with me through activism of various forms, and it’s something I came to think about again this week upon reading a Guardian piece entitled ‘The way charity workers encourage slactivism is dangerous’, followed by an article in which Billy Bragg laments ’the soul-sapping experience of keyboard activism’ in place of direct action. Those who gather online instead of in occupations, at marches or on the doorstep, are contributing nothing to real social change according to these arguments. On-the-ground, macho action is the only worthy kind.

What proponents of these views never acknowledge, however, is exactly who we tend to be talking about when we talk about ‘slactivism’. Often those who need social change the most find themselves – like the Bedouin women – facing numerous or impenetrable barriers to participation in traditional activism. Impoverished families, for instance, working round the clock to put food on the table with no spare time in between to pitch up at a march with a homemade banner and a megaphone. Single parents. Disabled people. Migrants who are afraid of the impact on their visa status if they get into any trouble. People from minority groups afraid of the police; those with mental health issues who can’t stand the crowds or the noise; carers. The list goes on.

Even if we take criticisms of ‘slactivism’ as only aiming at people who have the ability to take part in direct action but opt, instead, for signing an online petition, there are still questions raised about the privileging of ‘traditional’ methods over other more modern ones and whether this still stands up in 2016. A petition won’t revolutionise the world, for sure – but has an A to B march neatly ticked off each of its aims every time either? Does every person whose door you knock on immediately come round to your cause and promise their vote or their bank details to you within minutes of meeting? It’s fair to say that not all online activism seems immediately productive – ‘raising awareness of cancer’, for instance, especially gets on my nerves in a world where I challenge you to find one person who hasn’t been affected in some way by its devastating hegemony – but in the same way that we don’t lump the anti-choice lobby waving pictures of dead babies in with junior doctors striking over working conditions, there is a diversity of activism to be found on the internet, and not all of it is lacking in substance or value.

Take, for instance, the transfer of transgender prisoner Tara Hudson to a women’s prison after 150,000 people signed a petition highlighting the violence she was subjected to in a male institution. More recently, research into the outcome of last year’s general election showed that a large part of the Conservative party’s success – and the failure of polls to accurately predict the outcome – was down to targeted digital campaigning which allowed the party to broadcast straight onto the timelines of people in marginal seats without the journalists and campaigners of London and other cities even noticing. It’s ‘slactivism’ which I wish hadn’t been successful, but it’s an instance in which people liking and sharing social media content literally influenced the outcome of a national election. And besides; if, as we are led to believe, our lives are playing out more and more online with the boundaries between physical and digital life blurring all the time, of course our protest tactics should be updated to reflect that.

There’s a strange irony, then, in the unwillingness of activism – a realm you might reasonably assume to be fairly progressive and forward-thinking – to move with the times. It can be seen both in a reluctance to embrace a diversity of tactics which can only serve to bolster a campaign, and in the reluctance to come round – as the realms of employment and education, for example, have – to the idea that we’re missing out on talent if we don’t adapt our practices to accommodate people who might not otherwise be able to participate. If it’s social change that we’re aiming for, it seems only logical for the interim journey to involve empowering those who will benefit from the change to partake in any way they feel possible – otherwise we end up perpetuating a system where the most privileged fight for the rights of the least privileged at the expense of their own voices.

The really progressive thing to do, rather than deriding ‘slactivism’ or labelling non-protestors lazy, would be to move towards a definition of protest which sees all contributions as worthy; where the end goal is just one desired outcome and the participation of people however they are able is a success in itself. After all, in comparing those with the relative comfort and privilege to jump into direct action at will with those for whom everyday existence is an act of defiance in itself, it seems absurd that it should be the latter who are labelled ‘slactivists’.

The Bedouin women, then, remain my feminist heroes. In a society constructed to keep you down, carving out a means by which you can survive might just be the most direct action of all.

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