Scrolling through social media, it’s not hard to spot what I like to call “aesthetic activism.” This new social posturing takes many forms: VSCO-edited Instagram posts of students donning pussy hats, groups of people wielding signs with catchy slogans demanding human rights, temporary Facebook profile photo filters meant to show support of marginalized groups, long political rants on social media and more. This “activism” is defined by a few common elements. For one, the activists are not fighting for a specific policy goal. Rather, they’re rallying for the broad goal of “reform and improvement.” They also tend to overtly publicize their support, often on the internet.
The rise of fashionable activism makes sense: In today’s climate, there is social pressure for the average citizen to be politically aware and active. Especially among young people on wealthy, liberal campuses like ours, activism is almost a marker of social status. We are told that we have privilege and that we need to use it toward the common good. Your likeability is, in part, determined by how “woke” you are. Although I agree that we have a distinct responsibility to give back, there are more and more people who engage with activism on a surface level simply so that they can tick the box of social acceptance. This sort of ignorance, while seemingly innocuous, can destroy political movements.
However, there are those who argue that the more people are involved, the better, regardless of their intention. To them, it doesn’t matter whether people are protesting to boost their social status or because they seriously care about the issue: More bodies increases the visibility of political movements. However, this activism is not only ineffective — it actually sets movements back.
First, lazy activism helps bolster the media’s narrative that youth activism is ill-informed and should be ignored. When activists can only give vague or even factually incorrect answers, it is easy to claim that they are guided by emotion rather than substantive policy solutions. Actual progress is impossible to achieve when activists’ goals are murky and undefined.
I witnessed this problem last year at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Newscasters approached chanting students, asking them what they wanted our government to do. More often than not, the answer was merely “Gun control!” When asked further, students were rarely able to name specific laws. They hadn’t bothered to do any research beforehand or put effort into crafting their viewpoints, simply adopting the generic phrases thrown around by their peers. They were participating in the march as a half-hearted show of support.
Simply saying you want “gun control” or “improvements in gun control” is useless. Lazy politicians benefit from lazy activism. In response to demands for gun control, politicians can simply point to solutions that they know are riddled with holes, supposedly meeting activist’s demands. For example, background checks for gun purchases have already been implemented in America. The real problem lies in loopholes that continue to undermine the effectiveness of laws like the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The Brady Act, for instance, requires that background checks must be conducted in three days, or sales will be automatically approved. This was how Dylann Roof was able to purchase the guns he used to kill innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina. These loopholes are created by lobbyists but protected by a lack of activist awareness: When organizers don’t know what they want to hold the government accountable for, they can’t make sure that policy solutions are effective.
Furthermore, fashionable activism avoids the unglamorous work that actually enables change. After posting about your attendance at a local march, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve fulfilled your “civic obligation” for the day. Sadly, unless Elizabeth Warren follows you on Instagram, this does nothing. It is the laborious, time-consuming work that gets change done: canvassing in swing districts, fundraising, volunteering for local campaigns, phone banking, contacting your elected officials and — of course — voting. Directly spreading your message to politicians, rather than to other citizens, also increases accountability. If politicians know that activists are not willing to make the effort and hold them accountable, then they have no incentive to reform.
I understand that it’s a lot catchier to write out “THIS IS A SCHOOL ZONE NOT A WAR ZONE” on your poster in sky blue cursive rather than “FIX THE BRADY AND PRIVATE SHOW LOOPHOLE IN BACKGROUND CHECKS” in bold black Sharpie. I’m not asking you to change your poster, or even to stop going to marches. But the next time you march, or claim to support an issue, please know what you are actually fighting for. To create change, we must go beyond mere rhetoric and spend time educating ourselves first.
Rabhya Mehrotra is a first year in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .