The Limits of Online Activism
I wrote this piece last fall when the events of August 12th in Charlottesville were still fresh in my mind, and when the trauma of that day kept showing up in the form of panic attacks (they still happen but not as frequently). I think I opted not to publish at that time because I wasn’t ready to engage with the feedback. But a year later, this post is still relevant, and still important. Both terrible and beautiful things have funneled through the noise of social media in the last year, proving that it’s an important tool for advocacy and connection, but we still have work to do.
(I attended a wonderfully life affirming sustainable fashion event in DC last weekend that I’m hoping to write about soon. But I need time to catch up.)
I’m starting to notice a major weak point in activist circles.
There’s a growing gulf between those of us who are part of online – mainly twitter – social justice communities and those of us who choose to remain offline (or at least out of twitter conversations).
Active users of the platform have developed their own shorthand for talking about the issues of the day, and even changed the definitions of common words to suit their needs. There is nothing wrong with that on the surface – it helps people articulate pressing concerns quickly to those already in the know.
But what happens when these conversations become known to people operating outside the twittersphere?
A friend of mine recently shared an article that claimed that we should stop “humanizing” white supremacists. The author, a person of color, was responding to the unsatisfactory way Black Lives Matter activists at a Trump rally dialogued – or rather, failed to dialogue – with dangerous ideas about the way society should be structured. I agreed with her that the messaging was far too soft, that the BLM cohort, likely out of justifiable fear, tried to seek common ground to the detriment of voicing their legitimate concerns.
The argument broke down, however, because of the way she was using the term, humanize. To humanize someone is to “give someone a human character.” Essentially, to acknowledge their humanness. The only possible implication of an argument that says we should stop humanizing someone is that we should dehumanize them.
And that, surely, can’t be the argument the author intended to make.
Within the very particular online activist context her argument lived in, maybe she meant that we should stop making excuses for the poor ideas of Trump supporters, or that we should stop implying that they are generally humane people (though, I would argue that people are walking paradoxes, and often do behave humanely in spite of their political leanings).
But this did not come through for me, a casual Twitter user on the borders of online activist circles, so there’s no possible way it could come through for a regular person. (The website has since changed some of the problematic language around humanization.)
And that’s a problem, because it means we’ve gotten to a point where communication, even between potential allies, is becoming nearly impossible.
And it gets worse. Not only do entrenched virtual activists use jargon and make references to conversations that are inherently exclusive because they require a high degree of participation in tech-centered social media platforms, they expect those of us who are not fluent in their medium to respond to political events according to the unspoken rules of these exclusive communities.
They make us feel guilty for not “showing up” to the counter protests we simply never heard were happening. They silence our confusion assuming our genuine questions are an attempt to distract them from their goals.
They don’t realize that their virtue signaling looks like the ritual of a religion we’ve never heard of.
Look, I’m not trying to discount the good intentions of activists, and I think social media has been an asset to contemporary social justice movements.
But is it fair to expect everyone to be plugged into virtual spaces?
The answer is obvious to me: no. Online activists are operating in a space that many either don’t or don’t want to have access to. And I tend to think that since we’re physical beings living in a tangible world talking about material problems, it’s ok if we’re not constantly checking our phones and updating our feeds.
The people who created this technology admit that it’s addictive, and potentially detrimental to our ability to thrive. If anything, we should be engaging less online and more in our local communities.
Old fashioned word-of-mouth and weekly planning meetings should suffice, and they foster the face-to-face time that sustains trusting, dynamic organizations, not to mention allow for a proper analysis of body language and tone that contribute to more productive, less caustic conversations (I know I’ve been turned off by organizations I know are doing good things in my community because their online tone comes off as terse and scoffing).
Of course, many online activists already do meet in person, but I’m suggesting a thoughtful insistence on making these physical meetings the primary mode of communication rather than the monthly afterthought.
And, while traditional modes of communication will slow information down a bit, maybe that’s a good thing…
A related problem to tech-based exclusivity is our insistence that actions must be taken now, that solutions can be found in the space of 5 minutes and 280 characters. We would do well to put our heads together long enough to consider the long term, to predict unintended consequences, to find the weak points in our methods and correct course before we lose control over it. I intentionally abstain from long form twitter activism because I find that it too often feels like empty performance.
Showing up matters, but so does strategy, and solutions come when people decide that community matters enough to fight for an equitable one.
When we demonize allies, accept ideologically fundamentalist arguments about human behavior, and demand performance from people who were simply having dinner on the patio and missed your ping about the protest, we cause undue harm.
Maybe we even start to forget that activism was never about who can yell the loudest or preach the best or craft the perfect meme, that it’s always been about empowering the “little people” in society to build a human pyramid so high that it rivals the Trump Towers of this world.