There’s this kind of shitty thing we all do that we occasionally feel an obligatory but ultimately negligible guilt about but continue doing as if there are no consequences of our kind of shitty actions. It goes like this: my phone pings with the bright light of a Gmail notification. “There’s a new petition taking off on Change.org, and we think you might be interested in signing it,” reads the message, a sweet-looking white family smiling up from below the subject line. I skim their earnest plea; my heart brims with sympathy at their plight; out of my own overwhelming generosity, I tack my name at the end of a thousand others, therefore changing the world with a few mere clicks and keyboard strokes.
Or maybe I read about a troubling development in a distant country—a terrorist attack, perhaps, or a kidnapping. There’s a hashtag trending, and I tweet, very passionately, employing the hashtag, attaching a heart-wrenching photo, imploring all 567 of my followers to take two seconds out of their day and perform the same laborious task and #prayfor [fill in the blank]. And I feel, for a moment, a sense of pride and of fulfilled duty. Hey, I made a difference today.
This is slacktivism:”[t]he act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem,” as phrased by Urban Dictionary user 1Spectre4U. Slacktivism operates upon two inherent human qualities: a quest for the evasive warm fuzzy feeling of performing a good deed and a desire to do nothing at all. Combine the two, and you get a virtual circle jerk of self-approval and ineffective faux-advocacy.
When I think of slacktivism, I think of a 2007 “The Office” episode in which bumbling paper company manager Michael Scott hits his employee Meredith with his car, inadvertently causing a round of rabies shots to be administered to her at the hospital. Rather than fund-raise for Meredith’s bills or an apology vacation fund, Michael organizes “Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race For the Cure,” a charity 5k to benefit the nebulous concept of furthering awareness for a rare and curable disease.
The proceeds, of course, are donated to “Science,” after a chunk pays for a stripper in a nurse costume and a giant check. The fun run, while set in motion by the best of intentions, chalks up to a ostentatious show of goodwill, with the only real achievement a feeling of accomplishment and a good ego-stroke. Watching the events unfold, it’s pretty clear that Michael is, at best, an well-intentioned bungler and, at worst, a narcissistic asshole. But it’s not as easy to differentiate between the times that we, in our nimble-thumbed benevolence, are actually accomplishing something, and the times that we’re the blunderers/narcissists/assholes.
So what do we do? Don’t slack. To combat lazy, ineffective “activism,” we need to participate in political and social involvement that actually advances a goal, no matter whether it gives us a gooey feeling in our stomachs or provides us with a great Instagram photo. That is, the opposite of slactivism. Practical + activism = practivism. Cute, right?
While slacktivism is fun, easy, and attractive, practivism entails stuff that people don’t really want to do—stuff like writing to a representative, attending a city council meeting, or shelling out money to a charity or organization. It requires effort and funds. It takes longer than tweeting out a hashtag or sharing a Facebook post.
If The Office‘s Michael Scott exemplifies slacktivism, then practivism’s mockumentary character darling is Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation. As a government worker, Leslie works tirelessly to improve her town, holding public forums, organizing massive fund-raising events, instituting public health initiatives, and running for office. It’s tough, often thankless work, but Leslie’s hometown largely benefits from her efforts, despite their lack of amusement or glamour.
Outside the realm of popular sitcoms, practivism can take on infinite forms. Infuriated by Donald Trump’s immigration executive order? Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union or the United Nations Refugee Agency. Upset that people are so worried about foreign refugees when our own veterans are living in the street? Collect money, clothing, or personal care items or volunteer at a Stand Down event.
Practivism works, and it’s working right now. Concerned with Trump’s pick of wealthy Republican donor Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, citizens represented by Republican senators have voiced their disapproval. As of February 2, enough Republicans have pledged to oppose DeVos that only one more dissenter is needed to block her confirmation.
Or look at the 10 Actions / 100 Days campaign organized by the Women’s March on Washington. After well-attended protests in D.C. and other cities across the country, the group has encouraged tangible, practical steps to further the goals of the march, like writing postcards to senators and calling their offices to block Jeff Sessions.
The hard truth is that, even for a pretty decent human being, making a difference can be discouraging, while being a slactivist jerk is almost effortless. Practivism requires fighting the urge to burn today’s newspaper, throw up your hands and absolve yourself of real responsibility. Instead, fold it up angrily while muttering about the declining quality of print journalism, and get to work.
Last updated: February 2, 2017, 12:24 PM