When Invisible Children’s viral KONY2012 Campaign came out, it prompted a lot of discussion about the internet and activism. A debate arose about an emerging term: “slacktivism.” Urban Dictionary defines slacktivism as “The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”
Basically, slacktivism is the idea that the internet provides a way for individuals to look like they’re doing something, or to look like they care, without having to make significant changes or effort.
However, Jenna Arnold argues in a Huffington Post essay that “what Invisible Children has done is redefining the game of activism. Just ‘knowing’ and ‘forwarding’ is a simple and attainable task. Those who call social-media ‘slacktivism’ must not remember the recent events in Tahrir or Tehran. Educating people is an act of activism. Period.”
Arnold’s argument brings us to the other side of the coin: that maybe education, knowledge, awareness, and the internet don’t have to be passive experiences.
So, this is a concept that has been on the back burner for me for a little while now, but I’m drawn back to it after reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, where he claims reading images or texts isn’t necessarily a passive activity.
“In reality, the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance. […] This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment.” (p. xxi)
I want to think about this in the context of last week’s post on pity. While I can see that slacktivism is entirely possible as a response to many images of aid, I can also see how readers can take texts, and respond to them in productive and creative ways. Not responding with pity doesn’t mean to avoid situations that commonly evoke pity. It means engaging those situations, and putting the pieces together differently, assembling paths and opportunities for recognition, for deliberation, for engagement.
I’d like to make clear that I think that we can be passive readers or sharers, and those responses seem much more closely linked to a traditional ethics of pity. Rhetorical recognition requires judgment, and choice. It requires engaging in individual and collective agency. It requires that readers not be passive – but instead engage with problematics of cultural representation differently.