“I speak to good, decent people all around the world. And they all genuinely want to change the world – as long as they don’t have to change themselves. But life doesn’t work that way – first, we change in our hearts, and then, the world follows. True leaders must face their own demons courageously.” – Philip Wollen, philanthropist.
If there’s one thing that’s hard to deny about the age of The Internet and Portable Communication/Entertainment devices, it’s that it’s made us more lazy on the whole, and arguably more apathetic about the world around us. I can imagine that certain people are spitting coffee all over their keyboards right about now in a spray of indignant rage; “how can he possibly suggest such a thing!? Is that some of that rose-tinted (and btw, rather trite and pathetic) 80s and 90s nostalgia putting blinkers over the cataract-milky eyes of this old geezer?” Well before you scroll down to the comments section and unleash a dungpile of your finest trollage upon me for daring to suggest such a thing, please allow me my five minutes on the soap box.
Now, why would I suggest that the internet has made us (and by “us” I’m referring to the largely-Western citizens of the global digital landscape, not third world peasants with no access to this virtual landscape of bits and bytes) more apathetic on the whole? I make this bold statement, and it’s important to note the following point, people, in relative terms.
What I mean by that is precisely the fact that most article-skipping trolls will most likely have posted by the time you, the decent and polite reader, have reached this point: that humankind now, more than ever in recorded human history, has collective, instant and largely unrestricted access to more information about the past and present states of every single culture in the world than has ever before been made available to the common person.
We have the means at our fingertips, and you can take that in both figurative and completely literal terms if you want, to find out almost anything imaginable about the world. Google, wikipedia, youtube; these are, at least for me, the “big three”names in online information-seeking media, and with these three tools you’d be hard-pressed to name a subject upon which you couldn’t find heaps upon heaps of articles, critiques, analyses, exposés, essays and opinions ad infinitum.
Now while much of this content revolves around things of a rather inconsequential nature, there are vast reserves of online knowledge specifically pertaining to important academic fields such as science, politics, economics, medicine, history, biology, astrophysics, as well as a proliferation of equally important areas of the Arts, including fine art itself, literature, music, anthropology, cultural and gender studies, philosophy, psychology, film and other such areas of vital intellectual interest. In short, we have the means to thoroughly educate ourselves and expand our minds in an overwhelmingly vast array of fields of knowledge; the only limiting factor here is the individual’s capacity to absorb, analyse and retain whatever knowledge they decide to ingest.
Let me repeat this again: Never before, in the (roughly) ten thousand years of humankind’s span of civilised history has such a degree of knowledge been available to all as there has been within the last ten years or so.
Yet, how many of us make a daily, weekly or even monthly effort to access, analyse and digest even the most minute fraction of the monumental universe of knowledge that is freely available to us?
The point I’m trying to make in mentioning the vastness and comprehensiveness of information available to everyone relates to the founding principles of our postmodern, hyperglobal consumerist society: exploitation and unsustainability. Almost every industry around which our lifestyles of convenience and unquestioning consumption revolve is based on the plundering of some non-renewable resource (oil, for example), or cheaply exploitable but morally reprehensible source (massive exploitation of animals, exploitation of millions of third world poverty-stricken humans, including children, the wide-scale annihilation of the natural environment, the trawling of the oceans, etc etc).
Now, in the decades that preceded the 00s and the advent of global internet accessibility, it was relatively easy for those in power, the ones in charge of and profiting handsomely from industries dependent on massive exploitation and destruction, to keep the wool pulled over the eyes of the general citizenry, in whose hands the actual power rests (the power of participating in, or refusing to participate in certain areas of the economy). There was no youtube, no google, and no social networks like facebook upon which ideas could be shared and spread, with the rapidity and fury of a bushfire, across the expanse of the earth, transcending barriers of culture, language, nationality and socio-economic status. Documentaries, articles, books and opinion pieces that exposed the truth about the horrors of factory farming, sweatshops, the destruction of the rain forests, the extinction of millions of species of wildlife, resource wars in the third world, the dying oceans, etc, would have had to be actively sought out by those few individuals who were concerned enough to do so. Such materials would have been relegated to the “alternative thinking” or “New Age philosophy” section of independent bookstores, and in addition to being almost invisible in their physical placement they would have carried the stigma of those labels under which they were listed, which the exploiters have done such an excellent PR job of ridiculing, with public perception thereof being almost universally that of cranks, “dirty hippies”, crazed fringe lunatics, well-meaning but utterly ignorant and misinformed middle-aged-women, con-running charlatans, LSD-burned ex addicts, and all of the other false stereotypes associated with such labels.
Thus it was to be expected that in the pre-internet age, the majority of us, even the most erudite critical thinkers, would merely accept that the way our society functions as being good, right and wholly normal. We could not be blamed for harboring a complete disconnect with reality, because the means to expose that reality for what actually lay veiled beyond the curtain of the mundane, which consists of a series of horrific and monstrous systems of terror, destruction and exploitation, were simply not widely and freely available to us.
However, with the advent of The Web, this has changed completely. We can now see the truth of what forms the foundations of the pyramid upon which we totteringly sway, so sure of ourselves as the rightful Pharaohs of the universe, even as the base crumbles and gives way to the gaping maw of the ocean of desolation that is about to swallow everything. The Truth is but a mouse click away, for those that would discover it. And surely, we all want to know about issues so important that the very survival of our species utterly depends on it?
With that question in mind, let’s move on to the topic of “slacktivism”.
So, we’ve established that we have all of the information necessary to expose the Truth about the systems of horror and destruction that our lifestyles continue to fuel. We can learn as much as we want about dire and pressing issues that affect every single one of us and hold the very future of the planet and all life upon it in the balance.
But do we care?
We like to think we do. This is where “slacktivism” comes in. The term “slacktivist” came into use sometime in the mid-90s, apparently, and what it refers to is the usually very minor actions that an individual undertakes in support of a some distant cause. This could be something like “liking” a page on facebook, the online sharing of a video that promotes some cause, or perhaps signing one’s name on an internet petition. Less “passive” forms of slacktivism would be making credit card donations to a particular cause online, or in the real world, dropping some coins into a collection box for a charity or social justice cause.
Now let me say that in terms of what I have just described, slacktivism is not actually a bad thing. I am guilty of all of the abovementioned actions; yes, I too am a slacktivist when it comes to certain issues. I am not trying, in this article, to suggest that slactivism is useless. In fact, slactivism has actually achieved some pretty monumental things, which you can take note of if you peruse the following infographic.
However, the point I want to make about slactivism is that it’s not enough. While it has succeeded in making small positive changes around the world, it is not going to save us from the disaster we are speeding so recklessly and inevitably toward. It’s a temporary alleviation from extremely deep-seated feelings of guilt that, since birth, we have been conditioned to suppress way down to the furthest reaches of the subconscious mind. It’s a way of saying, “hey, look at me! I’m one of the good guys! I care about more than just myself!” But more than this, it’s yet another means of instant gratification in the age of instant gratification, (and the internet, with its online shopping, free downloads, streaming content, etc has massively amplified, reinforced and enabled a veritable epidemic of insta-grat cravings and addictions) and it’s another ineffectual shortcut in the era of ineffectual shortcuts; a failed promise from a slick internet salesman in exactly the same vein as “30-day sixpack abs, 1 minute a day, gauranteed!!!”.
The scary thing about slacktivism is the other side of the coin. While slacktivist actions are a quick-fix reflexive reaction that make a small difference and temporarily alleviate subconscious feelings of unease about our lifestyles and complicity in systems of mass violence and exploitation, they also reinforce apathetic and lazy behaviour in the individual. They strengthen the part of ourselves that is greedy, that is selfish, that is lazy, the side that does not want to change or make any kind of personal sacrifice for the greater good. And when this side of human nature is indirectly and subtly criticized or attacked, it reacts with its concomitant emotions: violence, anger, cynicism, sarcasm and mockery. What do I mean by “indirectly or subtly criticized or attacked”? This is when the individual is presented with an example of a person who is making considerable efforts to alter their lifestyle drastically, to make great personal sacrifices, to actively make changes in the world that will transform things for the better. This especially happens when such a person makes their efforts publicly known. The lazy or apathetic person sees such an individual, and through subconscious feelings of guilt regarding their own complicity or apathy, they react by attacking, mocking or vilifying that person’s lifestyle choices. After all, it’s easier and more satisfying to be an armchair critic and not have to do anything oneself to contribute to positive change in the world.
This relates to another reason for slacktivism being such a great feelgood prompt; we can “take action” on and make a noise in public about causes which are completely outside our sphere of experience, in which we are fairly certain that we have no instance of complicity at all. It’s a form of the age-old culturally-insular practice of defining the Other (whether this Other takes the form of people of other ethnic groups, tribal groups, religious groups, nationalities, etc etc is irrelevant here) via a negative comparison to our own group’s (perceived) moral superiority. Thus I often see people in my own online social circles (facebook news feed, for example) ranting about the evils of consuming shark-fin soup (usually Westerners who would never eat such a thing anyway, yet who in the same breath will post pics of the steak they had for dinner), the consumption of dog and cat meat in China (ditto), fur farms in Asia (ditto), or perhaps they will post about the traumatic effects of bullying in schools (a popular one doing the rounds now), or the hate spread by the Westboro Baptist Church, and accompanying this post will be something commenting on how enlightened they are because they “think religion is bullshit”. Or, perhaps the biggest one of last year – the Kony campaign.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that these are things we shouldn’t be concerned about and that we shouldn’t be raising awareness about. Of course we should be spreading awareness about these injustices and contributing to bring an end to them. But the point, once again, is that this is not enough – not enough to create and undertake the kinds of drastic changes we need to exact to save global civilisation from itself.
Slactivism is counter-intuitive to this in a way, because while it does raise brief spates of awareness and activity related to (Other-ed) causes, it simultaneously fails to address those evils that we are completely complicit in in our own lifestyles, and creates a sensation of satisfaction, in the sense of “I’ve done my good deed for the day, I can go back to lazing about and being apathetic without any latent feelings of guilt to bother me”.
But as Philip Wollen says, this is not how the world works. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into complacent apathy by temporarily-alleviated feelings of having “made a difference” for the day via slacktivist actions. We need to delve deeper, and critically examine our own lifestyle choices and the way that they are contributing to a looming global environmental and ecological disaster. We need to figure out how we can CHANGE the way we live, the personal sacrifices that WE MUST make in order to genuinely exact change. As Rowdy Roddy Piper says in the cheesy but relevant 80s film They Live, we need to “put on the damn glasses!”. Except these magic glasses will not reveal that an alien race as the threat to our continued existence upon Earth. They will reveal the threat that we ourselves pose.
So where do we start looking if we genuinely want to wake up and start making a difference? How to we attempt to steer ourselves away from looming disaster? What do we need to change to move towards a more compassionate lifestyle that distances itself from greed, exploitation and apathy? Well, the first place we can look is in our refrigerators and on our dinner plates. Now while one can wax lyrical about the ethics (or lack thereof) of consuming meat and other animal products, (the main reason I myself eschew them is because of the utter horror, cruelty and and amorality of the conditions in which commercial livestock are raised and slaughtered), the bottom line is that most people just don’t care. We’ve all been raised to believe that animals are stupid, that they are incapable of even the most basic emotions, let alone complex thought processes such as empathising, planning for the future, learning and problem solving or acting with altrusim in ways that go against the “survival of the fittest” evolutionary paradigm, despite mounting and irrefutable scientific evidence to the contrary which states, in fact, that animals (including sheep, pigs, chickens and cattle) are way more emotionally complex and intelligent than we perceive them to be. If you are one of the handful of people reading this who might be interested in learning more about animal intelligence, here’s an excellent talk by animal scientist Jonathan Balcombe. Skip the cheesy intro and go to 4:10 for the talk.
However, if your cultural prejudices prevent you from seriously entertaining such notions despite the massive weight of the scientific evidence that supports assertions of animal intelligence, it is understandable, because it’s an extremely powerful set of deeply ingrained values that allow us to believe we are rightfully justified in exploiting animals for their meat and other products, so read on. I mean, you didn’t get to the top of the food chain to eat lettuce, right? (I can assure you though, if you were placed unarmed and naked, which is our natural state, in a cage with a lion, tiger, polar bear or other large predator, the “top of the food chain” chain myth would very quickly be dispelled). Eating or not eating meat is no longer merely a question of ethics and morals relating to animals. It has now become one of the most pressing issues related to the survival of humankind on this planet. And no, this information does not come from “bleedin’ heart bunny hugging” animal rights organisations or other such fringe groups that you can conveniently brush off as being well-meaning but ignorant fanatics and lunatics. No, this information comes from years of exhaustive, comprehensive research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, whose damning report on the massive destruction caused by the global livestock industry directly correlates our appetite for meat with being one of the “major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” The full report can be found here.
That “Happy Meal” you just enjoyed was perhaps not so “happy” after all. In fact, it most likely caused the equivalent environmental destruction of detonating a few sticks of shrapnel-strapped dynamite in a life-dense rainforest, as well as pouring a few barrels of highly toxic sludge into a river and releasing a hot-air-balloon sized ball of noxious gas into the atmosphere. It also took the food out of a starving child’s mouth, because “82% of the world’s starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by more well off individuals in developed countries.“
Our voracious collective appetite for fish and seafood is just as destructive and if it continues unabated, the world’s oceans, once thought to be an inexhaustible resource, may well be devoid of most life by 2048. Modern commerical trawling practices also cause massive destruction as they tear up the ocean bed and kill everything from turtles to dolphins along with the fish that they are actually trying to catch.
We also rely extremely heavily on non-renewable, finite resources such as oil and petrochemical products (including plastics, which are one of the worst polluters and destroyers of the environment), to fuel our lifestyles of laziness, instant gratification and convenience, not giving even a moment’s thought to the destruction it causes or how unsustainable such a dependency is. We waste fresh water with abandon, treating it as if it were some infinitely-available commodity, rather than something which may well run dry and cause the greatest ecological crisis in human history within our lifetimes. (Just to return briefly to the meat thing, the livestock industry is one of the greatest water wasters on the planet, as well as being one of the biggest polluters of streams and rivers.) We waste electricity daily, not paying any thought to the fact that it mostly comes from the burning of coal and other non-renewable and heavily-polluting fossil fuels. And the saddest thing about all of these wasteful behaviors is that we believe that it is our inherent right to act in this manner, and that any alternative would result in an unacceptably egregious reduction in our standard of living, whereas quite the opposite is true; when one starts to live in a way that is compassionate, sustainable, and considerate to the poor and meek of the earth, one derives a far greater sense of satisfaction from life than from living for fleeting, temporary hits to satisfy brief and addictive cravings.
So this is what I’m essentially proposing in this piece: that slacktivism is not a bad thing in itself, but it can reinforce and excuse apathetic behaviour with its “quick-fix” ineffectiveness, and the bottom line about it is that it is simply not enough on its own to steer us from the course towards inevitable self-destruction that we have set ourselves upon with our wasteful, exploitative lifestyles of casual indifference, instant gratification and selfish convenience. We (and I include myself in this – like every person on this planet, I am nowhere near perfect and have plenty of my own vices) need to turn the lens upon ourselves and figure out what changes and sacrifices we personally need to make to work together for the greater good of humanity and our planet.
It is only through changing ourselves that true change for a sustainable, compassionate future can come about. And this will not happen by sitting back and clicking buttons on a computer…