Recently it was super trendy to do a volunteer trip in a poor country and follow it with a Facebook picture of oneself holding a helpless brown child. This sort of flattering altruism raised many eyebrows, and for obvious reasons: If your actions are truly about helping the less-fortunate, why flaunt it?
Although I’m not doubting the sincerity of many who do such volunteer trips, you don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to recognize that “holding the helpless African child” is often a form of self-promotion. Even our friends on the Left have found ways to interpret such photogenic philanthropy as self-serving.
Most of today’s political activism feels a lot like the profile picture with the Third World child, especially among the under-30 crowd. We all know contemporary activism tends to find its way onto social media: A person goes to an anti-Trump rally, and nine times out of ten will post a status documenting that participation. So now I ask: Is posting a photo of yourself holding an anti-Trump sign akin to posting a photo of yourself holding a Haitian child?
Yes, but publicizing one’s compassion is a much more clever game now. Whereas helping needy children on a volunteer trip doesn’t actually require broadcasting one’s actions, the purpose of modern-day activism is closely tied to the notion of spreading awareness—sharing your good deed with the world is an inherent feature of the deed itself. What a convenient goal.
We’re not meant to doubt the motives behind your flattering #supportthecause selfie, because you’re spreading awareness. That picture of you courageously holding a sign at this week’s anti-fascism protest isn’t to show the world you’re a great person, or to let your social circle know that you’re hip to the cause; no, it’s about spreading that magical awareness.
What We Call Decisions Made to Look Good
You don’t need to be a Seinfeldian cynic to see through all of this. Instagram, for example, is literally dedicated to projecting an idealized version of one’s life and character for others to see. It’s the ultimate tool for self-advertising. Instagram is where you share a bird’s-eye view of your cappuccino next to a book so everyone can know how quaint and learned your Sunday was.
By some weird and wild coincidence, Instagram just so happens to be among the choice platforms for promoting cosmic justice as well. In some happy twist of fate, the platform that is meant to portray the perfect version of oneself conveniently happens to be the go-to medium for those exhibiting their burning commitment to uplifting humankind.
I’m not buying it, and neither should you. By Occam’s razor, it sounds like what the kids are calling “activism” these days is really just another means for enhancing one’s appearance. Like a nose ring, a contrived candid pose, and a retro photo filter, activism injects a desirable aesthetic into one’s social media persona. What do we call decisions made to look good? Fashion decisions.
In favoring style over function, we’re left with a shallow knock-off of true activism for the kids to play with. Bastardized, standardized, and commercialized for superficial mass consumption, what we are actually witnessing is pop activism.
Pop Goes the Activism
Like other things “pop,” pop activism is more concerned with channeling the appearance of the original than knowing its substance. It requires no appreciation for the root material, nor the intellectual commitment to the ideas that underpinned the original cultural phenomenon. Generally, the younger the pop activist is, the more acutely fashion-oriented his or her “activism.” Resist capitalism on Saturday, and enjoy its fruits on Sunday. Decry institutional oppression in your latest Facebook status, yet lack the faintest idea of what truly oppressive institutions are like.
The pop activist is like the gym bro who posts shirtless pics of his hot bod to “inspire others to be their best selves.” The pop activist is like the supermodel who posts a no-makeup selfie under the pretense of “celebrating imperfections,” knowing full well that she still looks better than 99.9 percent of people would after a two-hour appointment at Sephora. The pop activist is very much like the person holding the African child, except the pop activist rarely does any actual good work.
Pop activism is just a giant Che Guevara T-shirt draped atop the collective bosom of a generation of vapid attention-junkies. If Katy Perry is a true activist, then she’s also a true punk-rocker. And whether you’re an aspiring Instagram model or peddling climate change models, there’s always a pop-activist accessory for your tastes.
Here’s the funniest bit: the very individuals who claim to abhor the idea of “cultural appropriation” are practicing the ultimate appropriation. They’ve extracted the imagery and language of meaningful activism from generations and peoples they cannot understand. Pop activists poach the look, but most will never come close to fathoming the circumstances and experiences of the truly downtrodden. Thus, the pop activist trivializes historical struggles for the sake of social cosmetics. It’s wrong for a white girl to wear braids, but apparently it’s just fine to liken a rally for subsidized birth control to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
What’s New About This Old Human Feature
Now, trends and Instagram quirks are usually harmless. It’s cute when cuffed trousers make a comeback for a few years. It’s cute when you’re given a glimpse into the (theoretically personal) moment an acquaintance proposes to his fiancée. We can argue that these cute things are narcissistic and vainglorious, but they’re not tangibly malignant.
But this phenomenon of cheap-and-trendy social consciousness has demonstrated an ability to drive policies that coerce and regulate people’s actions. That’s no longer cute. Sub-cultures as shallow as Beyoncé fandom shouldn’t have a dramatic effect on society’s most important institutions. We should be bothered that a bunch of hipsters who are nostalgic for eras of real struggle are exaggerating and fabricating human rights crises just to get their fix. We should be extremely bothered that “wokeness” has become a marketing gimmick for major fashion enterprise.
We’re all familiar with the silliness of virtue-signaling. We intuitively know that people go around wagging their fingers at others in order to make themselves look and feel good. We also know that activism has always had a place in vogue media.
But things are different now. Social media grants every person his own brand, and we’re constantly curating the studio of self. We are our own PR teams in the social marketplace, always ready to strike a pose or feign an emotion for the camera. Whoever or whatever brought us here reeks of malevolent genius. Pop activism dovetails perfectly with our ‘round-the-clock jobs of self-promotion. As a consequence, framing serious political issues with hyper-moralistic language becomes more effective. It’s no coincidence that campus leftism broke into the mainstream in tandem with social media’s meteoric ascent.
It’s the Confluence of Selfish Advantages With Activism
You may be thinking, “You’re not being fair. My best friend, Quinn, may derive some social benefits from his activism, but he’s genuinely devoted to what he’s doing.” Good point. But I’ll note two things. First, I don’t claim that no SJWs or pop activists maintain pure fundamental motives. Some of those gym bros really do want to inspire others with their washboard abs, and some supermodels do seek to celebrate imperfections. Yet general skepticism is warranted because, these days, activism is generally not what it purports to be.
Second, even if one is consciously committed to one’s own bag of social causes, it’s not unlikely that self-interest is a significant driver. Humans are good at convincing themselves of whatever reality aligns with their comfort. It just so happens that lots of rich people vote for and believe in the guy who wants to lower taxes. It just so happens that lots of welfare dependents vote for and believe in the guy who’s promising more government benefits.
It just so happens that your best friend, Quinn, settled on a political disposition that’s great for his image. It just so happens that he’s found himself in a political culture that guarantees praise for every instance of exhibitionism from his extended social circle. It just so happens that Quinn found a way to simultaneously fight for all that’s right in this world and look fab while doing it.
There’s an easier way to get to the bottom of this: Do you think half as many people would attend church if doing so didn’t come with any social benefits? That’s not so hard to admit. By that same token, are we to believe that half as many people would be Women’s Marching if it were all anonymous?
What makes pop activism so contagious is that it’s as easy to convince oneself of the virtue in one’s deeds as it is to persuade others. Just as traditional religious systems are so effective in generating activity by socially and spiritually rewarding the most conspicuous worshippers, the ecosystem of contemporary activism does much the same. Two hundred years ago it was bonnet-clad Puritans brandishing their religiosity; today we have pink-haired baristas converting every news item into obnoxious displays of sanctimony.
We Don’t Have to Be Like This
But the smartest woman in the room isn’t compelled to tell everyone how smart she is. The most pious man at church doesn’t feel the need to pray where everyone can see him. Similarly, a real activist doesn’t approach an anti-Trump rally with all of the social opportunism of a sorority pack eager to Snapchat the best pics from their Coachella weekend.
Don’t get me wrong: all of the hot topics of pop activism are worth talking about. But using activism, to whatever degree, as a means to social ends taints whatever intellectual integrity you may hope to associate with your political advocacy.
There’s always the hope that pop activism will go the way of Tamagotchi pets and Ed Hardy tees. But this is unlikely. Social signaling is an integral human function. Like music, pop activism will always be popular, but different content will go in and out of style. Future generations will inherit the paradigm of superficial activism, simply replacing old content with new (hence the rise of alt-righters and meme-based right-wing politics as an alternative to the leftist pop-activist program).
Unless we transcend the naïve idea that flattering activism is some sort of virtue, the country will always be at the mercy of the whims of fashion. That probably doesn’t make for good policy.