This summer saw an unprecedented rise in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but performative activism devalued the progress that the movement intended to make in the first place.
“The revolution will not be televised.”
Given the current political climate and the Black Lives Matter protest movement which swept the United States this summer, this quote has been thrown around quite a lot in recent months on social media. A reference from Gil-Scott Heron’s 1971 “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” self-proclaimed radicals use it to remind Internet audiences that revolutionary movements are rendered incomplete stories when curated by the media, but also, that such movements must take place inside of us, on our streets, and in the legal system. In other words, we cannot sit at home and watch the protests from a distance.
So why is it that, in our current moment, we mainly participate in the revolution on social media?
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic and accessibility are large determinants of one’s ability to participate in a movement. The best some of us can do is retweet a Carrd of information or like an image of protestors fighting back against police.
As important as the elements of accessibility and capacity are, we cannot normalize performative activism on social media. If the revolution will not be televised, it certainly cannot be accomplished by likes, retweets, and chainmail on our Instagram stories either.
Performative activism, or “slacktivism”, is the art of participating in a movement or supporting a cause for one’s own betterment or satisfaction, rather than supporting the cause to make tangible change or uplift oppressed voices. If your activism is largely about signaling certain opinions or ideas in order to gain acceptance from others, you’re probably perpetuating performative activism.
Due to the nature of social media, where a simple click or reply is enough to elevate an opinion, there are serious social benefits to performing “wokeness” on social media: acceptance, reputation, and increasing one’s social capital, among other things. Performative activism is attractive because it takes low commitment and effort, but still makes us feel satisfied when we join in on it. The allure of slacktivism increases when certain political opinions and movements have been dehumanized and made to be trendy or cool. Examples include signing Internet petitions, tweeting popular sayings (i.e. “Defund the Police”) and using hashtags to participate in activism.
“Performative activism is attractive because it takes low commitment and effort, but still makes us feel satisfied when we join in on it.”
With just over 10 thousand Twitter followers, a user like @Muffin_Chips can easily chant “DEFUND THE POLICE” to a large audience—supposedly drawing attention to the importance of systematic change and revolution—without acting on it or creating change. Positive change could be starting productive conversations or calling for donations to those affected by police brutality by, for instance, donating to bail funds for anti-police protestors. Of course, handing over donations in and of itself can be seen as bare minimum activism, but I would argue that this action goes further than repetitive tweeting to one’s large audience.
Aside from repetitive tweets by users with large followings, I think the most visible example of performative activism I’ve seen this summer is easily #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram. After the unjust, cruel murder of George Floyd, Instagram users took to the platform to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement by posting black squares. The idea behind this activism was that the squares would disrupt the usual flow of selfies and memes in one’s feed to create a day to mourn and begin conversations about the devaluation of Black people in America by the police and citizens.
What participants did not realize was that they were silencing Black people by clogging Black Lives Matter hashtags with black squares that contained no resources or information for protestors and Black activists. Social media is a channel for activism because it creates a constant flow of information that allows visibility for marginalized individuals and movements without platforms. By disrupting the activist traffic with nothingness and simply posting a black square, #BlackoutTuesday participants performed slacktivism at its finest.
Social media is a channel for activism because it creates a constant flow of information that allows visibility for marginalized individuals and movements without platforms.
Performative activism does not take place on the individual level alone. Networks, corporations, and brands participate in it too, by making changes to their shows and products or posting support for various causes that are low-cost and don’t go far in affecting real change.
Paramount Network, for example, pulled their show COPS from production following the protests in wake of George Floyd’s murder. After the visibility of the Black Lives Matter protest movement waned in the media, the show resumed production in Spokane County, Washington. Though it might not air in the United States, the fact that production resumed and was not advertised highlights the ineffectiveness of network and corporate behavior surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
What can companies and networks do to change the way they participate in activism?
I would argue one of the first steps is overhauling their hiring process to foster inclusivity and increase diversity on their boards and in high administrative positions. Networks can take a page from the beauty company notebook and participate in the #PullUporShutUp challenge, letting the public see the composition of their staff and leadership teams and promising to reform their practices in the future. This challenge is performative if only used for brand reputation, but it can be seriously beneficial if companies follow through on their promises to change their hiring stats and continue to publish them in the future.
What can individuals do instead of liking, retweeting, and hashtagging our posts to show support?
If you are able to, “open your purse” and donate to organizations that support individuals affected most by the issues you care about. While rich individuals and corporations should redistribute wealth in the name of distributive justice, donating a few dollars to BIPOC affected by police brutality, racism, and even the COVID-19 pandemic can go a long way in creating change. Make sure to do careful research into the organizations and people you are donating to, looking at the history, plans, and goals of those receiving funds.
As we have seen this summer, you can also generate change and turn the political tide by participating in boycotts and protests, which have been proven to work historically, especially when backed by information-sharing and education. If you have the ability to attend protests, be mindful of the ways race, gender, sexuality, and ability affect your role as a protestor. Stay true to the cause and what is asked of you, and let this guidance affect the way you perform activism on social media as well.
If you have the ability to attend protests, be mindful of the ways race, gender, sexuality, and ability affect your role as a protestor. Stay true to the cause and what is asked of you, and let this guidance affect the way you perform activism on social media as well.
Most importantly, engage with people in real life. Some forms of performativity, especially with our words, can actually be a good thing. Sara Ahmed, a scholar who studies intersections in feminist and queer theory, writes in conversation with Judith Butler that creating change with what we say is all about producing the effects intended in our words. These utterances also need to be tailored according to our person, our platform, and the moment we are in. In other words, it is not enough to chant “abolish the police” to our social media audience, as these words do not begin the conversation of how we will abolish the police.
In line with Ahmed’s philosophy of being a feminist killjoy, we must disrupt the happiness narrative in our real lives by refusing to be complicit and speaking out against injustice in our social circles. Call out friends and family members on their racism and misogyny. Live what you believe in your direct actions. Write to your Congress member or to an authority that can create the change you want to see. Our beliefs are transformative when we bring them into our everyday lives, outside of social media.
In line with Ahmed’s philosophy of being a feminist killjoy, we must disrupt the happiness narrative in our real lives by refusing to be complicit and speaking out against injustice in our social circles.
Remember, the revolution will not be televised.
For ways to support Black Lives Matter and communities of color, visit The Strategist.
Illustration: Megan Lentz is an illustrator for F-Word magazine. She is a junior majoring in English in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.