It’s been a great year for slacktivism.
Tweeting has ushered in a new kind of benevolent human being, the hashtag activist. The following list is a few of the best of the worst in hashtag activism this year:
- Nearly 3 million Syrians are internally displaced or refugees in surrounding countries. Way before ISIL or ISIS dominated the 24-hour news cycle, people were drawing attention to #prayforpeace in #Syria—a prayer that today is more urgent than ever.
- For years now a campaign to get Washington’s racially offensive NFL mascot changed has taken on multiple forms. Non-Native Americans tried to curb the public’s sensibilities by using #redskinspride, but of course for those of us who refuse to use racial slurs it backfired and fueled the #changethename and #notyourmascot movement by repurposing the hashtag.
- In April, while students in Nigeria’s Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok slept soundly in their dorms, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 students. Many of these children were sold as brides for a mere $12 in neighboring Cameroon and Chad. The #bringbackourgirls twitter campaign touched quite a few of us on an emotional level.
- While 66 Israeli soldiers died in combat this summer, #prayforgaza reminded us that the 600 children of the 2, 200 Palestinians (mostly civilians) killed were largely without representation in the world’s courts.
- A young African American man, Michael Brown, was shot by a white police officer in a suburb of Saint Louis, Missouri known for systemic racial biases. Subsequent racial tensions simmered to boiling points in Ferguson while people everywhere tweeted #handsupdontshoot.
- The #ALSicebucketchallenge was a curious one, people poured freezing cold water over the top of themselves in order to avoid giving to charity— they filmed themselves instead of making a donation. Yep, exhibitionists everywhere in the so-called Developed World. (Many folks in Sub-Saharan Africa who wanted to help couldn’t find clean drinking water to waste…).
- And, if you happened to have missed out on all the chirping about those sorts of things, there’s always the perennial ramp up of noise about the #humantrafficking activity that folks draw attention to around the Super Bowl and this year’s World Cup.
All of these provocative causes have captivated our 140-character-imagination.
Don’t get me wrong—there are benefits from hashtag activists churning out awareness and advocacy for issues that need to be driven to the top of news feeds and media outlets.
I’m guilty myself of being an armchair activist, using the gift of my opposable thumbs to generate tweets of hope.
But what is hope if not embodied through sacrifice and relationship? What is the integrity of advocacy when our meager efforts merely reduce the so-called victim to the illustrated face of the causes we feel concerned about?
Over the past few years there have been a few beacons of hope—courageous truth-tellers—aiming to get our attention about some of these blind spots and pitfalls. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good and Peter Greer’s The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good both drew attention to the short-comings of what Teju Cole refers to as the “White-Savoir Industrial Complex.”
Eugene Cho, founder of One Day’s Wages, shows up with some answers and guideposts in his new book, Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?.
In a world with too many hindsight critics, slactivists, and hashtag activists, we need more voices that are connected through authentic friendships with people who are poor. And that’s why I respect Eugene. From the very outset he confesses his own sense of enamorment with notions of changing the world over the costs of what it will realistically take to see the world changed.
Sadly, it is the luxury of the non-victim to make a living off the backs of those who are poor by blogging, speaking, and publishing versions of so-called conversions to esoteric poverty. Often, unaccountable and detached from contexts of poverty, so-called “professionals” have spun their insolated and isolated assumptions about poverty into conferences or college courses.
What many fail to understand is that touching the wounds of those marginalized is costly. We are all now witnessing what happens when a person infected with Ebola comes in contact with a courageous soul who dares to show love and attention.
In his first book, Eugene doesn’t mince words about these sorts of things—in fact, he goes after some of the sacred cows of hipster activism. But he does it with a confessional tone that is inviting, never wry or cynical.
So why don’t we move our thumbs from tapping out provocative tweets to dialing the phone numbers of suffering friends? What would it look like if we stopped using suffering to drive page views to our blogs? How much more good could we do if people stopped parlaying our best poverty exposure stories from immersion trips into fodder for book proposals or sermons? Could we imagine a new kind of social engagement that doesn’t co-opt someone else’s story to bolster our own compassionate personal brands?
Years ago I was guilty of all of this plus a few other audacious strategically contrived plays. But friendships have converted me to a new we—one that doesn’t take advantage of the vulnerabilities of those in poverty to make the non-poor look heroic.
Today, I’ve found the life less-tweeted allows for friendships to feel safer and less opportunistic.
Real friendships aren’t tweet able.
Friendships hold us accountable. We can’t simply hashtag a friend’s need and think we can get on with the rest of our lives.
Friends don’t use the suffering of their friends to make a living or fund their causes or organizations—these sorts of abuses only dehumanize everyone in their shallow exchanges.
Friends expect more than a tweet when they are desperate and their needs are real.
Fidelity in friendship is undramatic and an invitation to stay, especially when our vocational attention span is about the length of a degree program or when our serial-ideas-for-good gets distracted by a new opportunity or creative initiative.
Thankfully we have witnesses like Eugene Cho who shows us an alternate way forward, one marked by solidarity, embodied justice, and confessional generosity.