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Performative Activism

Performative Activism

By Ryan Backus

For countless years, polling has shown that young people lack interest in politics, however, Generation Z is determined to change that statistic. As more and more of ‘Gen Z’ turns 18, there has been an increase in young voters showing interest in voter issues. With this increased interest in social change and using their civil rights comes an increase in activism, both performative and activism that truly makes a change.

Approximately 70% of Generation Z say they are involved in a social or political cause. As Gen Z gains political mobility and more of a voice in social issues, there has been a rise in the use of social media to spread awareness out about systematic injustices. These injustices range from institutionalized racism, to LGBTQ+ issues, and climate change. While this may be a good thing, the question still reigns… is reposting a premade graphic on social media doing enough to make a lasting difference?

Performative activism is a way to support a political or social cause with little effort, commitment, or impact on the issue itself. Instead of being genuinely committed to the cause, this type of activism is mostly employed to build social capital. Many individuals will voice their concerns and opinions on issues occurring in the world through the use of social media. Social media “makes people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t”.

The term, performative activism, increased in usage in 2020 during the wake of the protests against George Floyd’s death. George Floyd was an African-American man who was murdered by a police officer on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota during an arrest after a store clerk suspected Floyd of using counterfeit money. When videos of Floyd’s death went viral on social media, there was an uproar consisting of protests both online and offline. At this time, discourse arose over the differences between these two types of protests.

It seemed everyone was posting about this horrific event on their social media platforms in one way or another. A major approach people used to show their solidarity for racial justice was posting a black square on their Instagram. This event is known by the hashtag #blackouttuesday. While this may be endearing, it is a harsh comparison to those who risk their lives in a global pandemic to participate in the marches and protests in person against the murder of George Floyd.

There can be problems when the meaning and goals of these causes are not clear to the viewer. Consider the famous quote from Desmond Tutu “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” this message and many others like it are often communicated via social media. This can make people feel the need to show their support in any way they see fit, as a result, it can create performative activism. When in actuality, this remark is meant to inspire real-life activism in people who may not be personally impacted by the problem but are nonetheless aware of it.

The term slacktivism has been used to describe this type of performative activism. A combination of the word slacker and activism perfectly describes the lack of work this social media posting is really doing. While posting about an issue does raise awareness, more must be done. This type of activism gives people a cheap and easy avenue to act on a social or a political issue, regardless if the individual is passionate about the cause or not. This can be seen as a way to voice your opinion about a cause without having to head to the streets to protest.

A common example of “Slacktivism” is the use of signing online petitions. Across seemingly all social media platforms, links to petitions supporting a certain cause circulate constantly. Many people will re-post them to their feed in the hopes their followers will click the link, however this frequently does not happen. Even if someone does click the link, signing an online petition is as easy as clicking a button. Since this form of activism is essentially effortless, it falls under the umbrella of “Slacktivism”.

Performative activism is not entirely negative. It is still informing and educating people in some way, but it alone is not activism. Instead, it needs to be backed by actions that may have a real impact on the cause. While online activism may not always be as effective as one would hope, it isn't a lost cause. It can even be considered as a gateway to bigger actions. In order to make a real effort and difference for the cause, we must continue to post about these causes. However, the work cannot stop there.
Even while we must stand up for what is right and take the first step toward righteousness, it is crucial to understand that we are only human and will occasionally fall short of perfection. It is incredibly important to recognize that we are human and cannot always be perfect and we will make mistakes. Although what matters most is making a deliberate effort. Every day we continue to gain knowledge about how to assist marginalized communities. We come together to educate, speak up, and protest against these inequalities in our world and how to fix them for future generations.

Now that we know what is performative activist looks like, let’s discuss how to actually be an activist in today's political and social sphere.

Find a few causes that you feel passionate about
This part should not be too hard, given the state of our social and political climate, there are injustices in practically any part of the world.

Educate yourself on the issues within the causes
You cannot be an activist for a cause you do not know about. Make sure to stay up to date on the current issues.

Involve others in the cause
With more people taking action on a variety of causes, there is more of an impact on the issues and more capability for substantial change.

Think globally, act locally
Grassroots activism is how things can change in your immediate community, though that
can then impact surrounding communities creating a snowball effect.

Be aware of important events
Try to attend important events such as protests, strikes, parades, and conventions to deal with the causes you are passionate about.

Participate in the political process
Make your voice heard and VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! Voting is the best way to elect officials that reflect the change you want to see.

Write your legislators
Write your local representatives and senators to let them know your opinions and how to represent your vote.

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