Pity and the Slacktivist

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.”

konydoesnotsimply

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.”

konysuccesskid

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.

3 thoughts on “Pity and the Slacktivist

  1. joshbarn says:

    I like your move to de Certeau here, Beth. I’m wondering how your argument, which I’m reading as the beginning of a comic corrective, can help us get out of the bind that some earlier thinkers like Sontag have gotten us into. I’d love to read a post where you talk about Sontag’s claims regarding compassion fatigue and this new form of slactivism (maybe we should get rid of the k?). How do we encounter the accumulation of images of atrocity in ways that are productive? Does the Internet give way to new opportunities for encountering images in ways that might contribute to the larger political projects of humanitarianism?

    • Joshua, I think that’s a great idea – working up something on Sontag could be very interesting to me, and also very helpful for this conversation. Let me get back to you, in like a week 🙂

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