Slacktivism is annoying and short-sighted and doesn’t actually cause change–but there might still be redeeming value to it.
Safety Pin Controversy
If you logged into your Facebook or Twitter in the past 24 hours, you might have noticed a lot of safety pins being discussed in one of two ways:
- Some people were changing their profile pics or wearing them in real life as a subtle way to say they consider themselves to be not xenophobic, racist, sexist, or anti-gay and are “safe” people in troubled times. (PBS Article)
- Other people were criticizing the wearing of pins as just a way to make white people feel better and redeemed–and in many cases, a sense of regret for their vote for Trump. (HuffPo Article)
To the latter point, a Telegraph article summarizes it neatly:
Most social media users saw [the safety pin] as a gimmick and something that enabled people to feel like they were taking a stand, without doing anything concrete to enact change.
I agree that the safety pin is not a concrete way to enact change.
But then again, perhaps it isn’t meant to.
Some definition and another case study is needed about why this type of small action is important.
Slacktivism, or low effort collective actions done online or in real life, do not often cause change in the real world, but they have other effects that I believe are beneficial to movement-building for justice and equality.
Back in 2013, the Human Rights Campaign encouraged its supporters to change their profile pictures to be the red “equals sign” to indicate support for marriage equality, which was before the Supreme Court. Was the Supreme Court going to count how many people had red profile pics? Was the opposition going to say “oh man, we don’t have the support” and quit? No.
But back in 2013, and today, I think there are two very real situations where safety pin slacktivism matters.
01. Connect Social Networks
I sat and scrolled through my friends list on Facebook, seeing who had a safety pin as a profile pic or as an overlay. Some of them were obvious. Some of them were expected. But some were very unexpected, of people who I didn’t know well, but saw their effort to say “what just happened was wrong.” And that meant I could strike up conversations with them about what it meant to them.
With every change of a profile picture, I saw them being invited into advocacy groups or to do something with their message. I connected some people I knew in the same rural town by via private message.
The 2013 HRC campaign had lasting effects on me too. Now whenever I friend a new person, I scroll through their profile pics, and if I see an HRC red equals sign in their past pics, then I know we have something in common (LGBTQ equality).
The profile pics allowed for a community to emerge that otherwise might not have ever known about each other. Even folks who wouldn’t dare change their profile pic could see others and connect with them privately, finding community while maintaining discretion in their situation.
As the header pic indicates, in in a small way, it helps identify who is in the Rebellion and who has enough compatibility and compassion to shed their own prejudices and stand for others.
02. Impact Unexpected People
It’s not just online. Wearing a subtle item in day-to-day life can yield unexpected conversations.
Following Trump’s election, a white grandmother in the Bible Belt wore her safety pin to the local store and had the following exchange:
The cashier who was African American: “I like your pin”
Me: I guess that means you know the meaning
Cashier: yes. Another customer had one with rainbow beads.
Me: I’ve seen those. I want to do that.
Cashier: thank you. I’m lesbian.
Me: well you are safe with us.
Cashier: my name is “Ashley.”
Me: hi Ashley, my name is Janet.
Ashley: it’s a pleasure to meet you, Janet.
We shook hands. As I walked out and to my car, I had a tingly feeling from my scalp to my toes. She is triply vulnerable: woman, African american, lesbian. And yet she was willing to be vulnerable with me, a complete stranger.
Symbols are powerful. Words matter.
Now that grandmother has someone to befriend or at least watch over when she’s at that store and can stand up for them if the situation arises.
Back in 2013 with the HRC campaign, I received a similar response from a gay man in the Rust Belt:
“If something like [the equals sign] had happened when I was a kid, it would have made my day. If *one person* I knew had expressed the opinion that I was a human being who deserved respect- whether it was by wearing a shirt, or hanging a sign, or using the word gay even one time in a way that was neither derogatory nor pitying- the teenaged me would have been overwhelmed.
I hesitate to categorize, but anecdotally from my Facebook wall, the LGBTQ and ethnic minority folks who criticize slacktivism are from blue states, whereas the ones who express appreciation or have good experiences with them are from red states. Perhaps my privilege is blinding me to another interpretation, that’s true, but I think overall it is contextual as to whether people feel the actions are appreciated or not.
Plan for All Or Nothing
My advice is to think through what the slacktivism could mean before participating.
The safety pin idea originated from a post-Brexit context in Britain where xenophobic attacks on immigrants and persons of color spiked. It symbolized that Britons would walk with immigrants or share a cab and try to protect them from violence. At best, it meant that the Brit would be willing to do whatever it takes to help someone.
Is that what it means to you? By wearing a pin, people need to make plans for how to actually stand with people and make concrete change should the situation arise.
A blogger helpfully outlines how to wear a safety pin with authenticity by addressing these topics:
- Know what the pin means
- How many plans will you need?
- How much are you willing to risk?
- Does the person want help?
- Do you know how to de-escalate?
- Do you know how to handle violence?
This is all or nothing. If you aren’t willing to stand up for everyone who is vulnerable right now, don’t wear the pin.
Community, Not Change
If adding a safety pin or changing a profile pic was to cause change, then I would be doing it all the time. If by changing my profile pic, I could start to fight cancer, eliminate sex trafficking, help the homeless, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, abolish the death penalty, then I would be doing slacktivism all the time from the comfort of my armchair.
But that’s not the goal. The goal is building up a community that can then work for change. The goal is to offer a spark of support to people whom you might never meet. And the goal is to show how lonely it is getting out there…for some.
Slacktivism, understood in this way, isn’t a substitute for actual boots-on-the-ground activism. It actually can be described as self-centered as its power lies in the building up of the community of activism not the community being empowered. Make no illusions as to what role slacktivism has in an advocacy movement!
But in the long run, this form of involvement can yield more voices for a movement, more connection, and more people with a stronger understanding of how Trump’s election has changed everything for everyone…but only if we let it.
Thoughts? Thanks for your comments and your shares on social media.
Note: Portions of this post were originally published in 2013.