Which of the following three scenarios is ideal:
Scenario one: somewhere in the ocean a man is drowning because there is no lifeguard. Far away, another man is unaware of this and cooking dinner for his friends. The first man drowns.
Scenario two: somewhere in the ocean a person is drowning because there is no lifeguard. Far away, another man is aware of this and thinking about it as he cooks dinner for his friends. He tells his friends about it over dinner to see what they think, and they, too, feel sympathy for the struggling man. The first man drowns.
Scenario three: somewhere in the ocean a person is drowning because there is no lifeguard. Far away another person is aware of this and thinking about it as he cooks dinner; he knows it is unlikely with his current skills and location that he could save this drowning man, but that there are probably many more people out there drowning than he even knows about. He stops cooking dinner. He researches how to become a lifeguard, or how to support those who are training to become lifeguards. He starts making less expensive dinners and donating to the “train a lifeguard” fund. The first man drowns, but many others after him are saved by lifeguards.
It’s not that hard to decide, is it? Of course, the third option is ideal. But what if we take out the third scenario and it’s just between the first two? What kind of value can we assign to the “awareness” of the second man? Does it change anything? Is it helping the situation?
Is “awareness” a solution in and of itself?
Social Media has turned our generation into armchair activists, or perhaps more accurately, share-button activists. We live in the “viral” age where anyone or any cause can, within 24 hours, saturate our News Feeds, provided the video graphics are impressive and the background music is moving.
Is all of this video-sharing a useful part of social change? This is a question about us and whether we’re actually helping anyone. This isn’t about whether education, discussion, and awareness are necessary parts of activism, they indisputably are.
But education, discussion, and awareness alone do not constitute activism.
Whether it’s Kony 2012, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, or most recently Wealth Inequality in America, we love an opportunity to teach our friends about a new-found cause/issue/problem. These videos and the efforts behind them can have value in and of themselves, but our role as activists must include more than just viral video campaigns.
We seem lazy.
And this problem isn’t isolated to the Internet. Our generation is obsessed with taking a stand and showing our awareness when minimal effort is required. We love to buy a pair of shoes or an i love boobies! bracelet so that we can prove to the world that we really do care. We want saving the world to be easy.
Ignorance is bliss; we don’t want to know that a lot of our donated dollars don’t go where we think they go. We don’t want our lives to actually be disrupted. With our first-world western naïveté we believe that clicking the share button and occasionally buying something with a ribbon on it are contributing to the solution.
We are definitely “contributing”, but to what?
To a culture of pseudo activism.
Let’s take Kony 2012 as an example. Following its inception, the Kony 2012 video went viral very quickly, despite the fact that it was nearly 30 minutes long.
Within a week, several bloggers and websites were already criticizing the movement and whether it was actually helpful, and even more were concerned about the Invisible Children organization promoting it. Now, recently, Invisible Children has come out with a new video shedding light on what has happened in the last year, listing certain accomplishments made through the campaign.
I had to ask myself as I read the update: how much has changed for those who shared the video? If you did share the Kony 2012 video, what else did you do for the movement over the last year? How do you feel you contributed?
Or how about “Why I hate Religion and Love Jesus”? If you shared that video, and you really felt that the church was in need of a reformation, what have you done about it since you shared the clip? Have you prayed for the church? Have you gotten more involved and tried to change the culture the video calls “unbiblical”?
What about the most recent problem-gone-viral, “Wealth Inequality in America”? Those who watch it will notice that it bares a striking resemblance to another movement, the Occupy movement.
I’ll never forget the first time I experienced the Occupy movement as something more personal than interesting news; I was shopping downtown when I heard a commotion outside because protesters were marching by with signs and flags. I remember thinking something “big” must be going on. That was only the beginning, as Occupy was the subject of many conversations and debates for months after.
A year later, I shop downtown in quiet again. Occupy has been the subject of intense criticism with many accusing the movement of doing nothing more than promoting littering in parks. It has also suffered hilarious ironies, making it more of a joke than a serious “movement” to many.
But here we are, after so many protests, with a viral video on our News Feeds promoting the same information that Occupy tried to communicate and offering the same solutions to the problem:
Can “awareness” that leads nowhere be harmful?
As we become more and more connected to each other and are better able to access information, I wonder if we’ve also become much lazier with the information and connections. I wonder if we have become an “activist” generation, or simply one that sleeps better at night because we think we are activists. We all enjoy the privilege that is social media, allowing us to share our thoughts and opinions with the masses.
But how many of us view this as a responsibility to share accurate, helpful information?
I am all for making opportunities for helping others more available and accessible to the masses, but true activism will always involve hard work.
True activism and social media do not have to be exclusive.
Education and awareness are the foundation for change. Facebook became an unlikely mobilizer across nations during the Arab Spring. With a goal in mind, and a plan, status updates and event invitations were catalysts that changed history.
To achieve success beyond a quickly fading fad, it must be practical, sustainable, and encourage an actual response. Achieving universal suffrage, the women’s rights movement, and the civil rights movement all serve as examples of our country’s strong history of reform.
We’ve successfully incited change in the past. Those who participated would probably tell stories of extreme dedication, even bearing shame for what they promoted. Somewhere along the lines of cell phones and YouTube many have lost this commitment to sacrifice.
So should you share the video?
Should you not? Ultimately, the answer doesn’t depend on those questions above. It depends on what you will do afterwards. If we all try to become involved with every cause set before us, we’ll be equally ineffective. It’s impossible to act on everything.
So focus less on what your Facebook profile says about you, and much more on what your actions say about you.
The Kony 2012 video begins with the Inception-esque line, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea…”
And while it may be true that ideas are very powerful, there is something more powerful: ideas that become plans which become action.
Next time you watch a viral video, or buy a pair of shoes, or check for the pink ribbon label, ask yourself whether you’re really committing to a cause, and willing to sacrifice for it. Think back to the predicament of the drowning man. If your current activism efforts are evaluated, would people say you are committed to a solution for helping him, or just acknowledging his death?
Is the effort about the Cause, or about my own image as an apparent advocate? What am I contributing to–really–with this purchase, or this tweet, or this Facebook share?
Many times I have only contributed to my own “guiltless” conscious.