Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On "Slacktivism" and Red Avatars

[Image text: Red HRC equality logo.]
Chances are, if you have progressive friends on Facebook, you're seeing a lot of red today.  As the Chicago Tribune has reported, this movement has picked up a lot of steam:
A red and pink version of the Human Rights Campaign's blue and gold equality symbol has been replacing avatars today across that social network and others.
The push began to gain traction after George Takei posted about it on his widely popular Facebook page, which has nearly 4 million fans.
"For those friends wondering, this special 'red' equality symbol signifies that marriage equality really is all about love," Takei wrote. His post had more than 50,000 likes and 20,000 shares as of Tuesday morning.
As I'm sure you are aware, the spread of the picture is a sign of support for marriage equality which is going before the supreme court today and tomorrow with cases involving California's Prop 8 and DOMA. Nothing all that groundbreaking has happened yet, but the momentum behind the Facebook pictures certainly is interesting.

Amid a movement like this, there is always the ever-popular backlash that these actions only amount to "slacktivism" which does no real good. In a general sense, that criticism is worth investigation. I remember when the whole KONY debacle was in full swing, I kept wondering, "What IS this and WHY do people think this campaign will make a real difference?" People were mindlessly sharing a video and supporting a campaign without actually researching the organization behind it. And rather than understanding KONY for the advocacy group it was, people falsely assumed money was going to directly to kids. Additionally, with this and other cases of slacktivism, people opted to click a button on their Facebook over making donations to reputable direct service agencies, becoming civically engaged, educating themselves, volunteering, or protesting. It was all the worst things of digital activism: lazy, complacent, and even ill-conceived. 

So when all of Facebook goes awash in red, it's logical to think, "Yeah, but what is this DOING?" However, if you probe a bit further with this case, I would argue that it is not all that slacker-y. 

First of all, there is the power of the visual representation of so. many. red. avatars. It's actually quite beautiful. Many of my Facebook friends who I didn't know were allies have shown their support. That's huge! We're celebrating what is now the majority opinion and helping people who might otherwise be isolated feel a part of something. We're making online spaces safer for LGBT people. 

Secondly, the issue at hand here is with the supreme court, who does not answer to voters. There's not a lot more we can do for these cases at this point. No one we can write or lobby to--so why not at least show support in whatever small way we can?

Finally, I really hate the cynical implication that everyone who participates in these movements is "just" doing this one thing; that we're all "slacktivists." I receive this criticism for so much of my online work--I'm frequently told by trolls that "if you don't like it, why don't you go out and change things instead of bitching." (Direct quote from a troll comment I never published.) The issues with this assumption about me are numerous but first and foremost--blogging and my online presence is just one part of my activism. Furthermore, what's so bad about doing good online? Isn't that better than not participating at all? When will we stop seeing the online space as somehow disconnected from our actual selves? We all know in reality it's more integrated than ever.

Yes, ideally, people who support marriage equality should donate to the many organizations who work in that realm like The Human Rights Campaign and Equality Texas. Yes, we should also march in the streets and sign petitions and volunteer with organizations that fill social service gaps for queer people. But those things are not possible for all people. And it can also be pretty powerful to have a visual representation of support and love. Today has provided that...on my newsfeed, at least. 

***ETA: since writing this I have learned about the HRC's history of trans* discrimination. That is an incredibly important point to acknowledge. I'm not editing my post as to maintain integrity and accountability for my original position. 

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  1. One of the reasons I changed my FB avatar was specifically to support my LGBT friends and family who are on FB. I have at least one relative who has not completely come out yet because she is afraid of how our family will react. Though I've already told her in person that I support her, I felt it important to change my profile in honor of her and all my LGBT friends. I know she saw it because she *liked* it. :) I hope she's seeing a sea of the red equal signs this week and feeling loved and accepted and maybe even a bit more comfortable with the idea of coming out the rest of the world.

  2. As you said, changing your avatar doesn't mean you aren't doing other, more active things, to support GLBT. The impact on my FB page yesterday was amazing--awash in a sea of red. The tide is changing and I hope the Supreme Court is hearing it. Even one of the most conservative local radio talk show hosts expressed his support yesterday.

  3. Depending on the cause, sometimes posting about it can be really effective in advancing the cause. With LGBTQ equality, public support has grown as more people know individuals who identify as LGBTQ, and more LGBTQ people have felt comfortable coming out as they feel they have support.
    In the fight against rape culture, part of the problem is that we've all been raised in it, and many people aren't even aware that they're contributing to it. A simple post can challenge the way someone thinks about something.


This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion.

TL;DR Troll comments are never published, so don't waste your time.