Most of us would be familiar with the famous #BLM or the #BlackLivesMatter, a movement that seemed to ‘explode’ all over social networking sites (in July 2020), with unprecedented magnitude- encompassing voices and support from the protest against the systematic oppression of the black people or a sign of standing up against police brutality; but you might be surprised to know that the slogan ‘black lives matter’ was in fact fabricated in 2013. The movement seemed to blow up only last year which led to the popularization of the term – performative activism.
While the rest of the world was busy roiling at different bodies of law and government for their discriminatory practices and lack of action, another heated debate was underway in the world of the intellects and experts of social sciences. The topic of debate being performative activism. Before delving into which side of the debate was more convincing or who won the debate, etc. it would be helpful to understand the term ‘performative activism’. Performative activism is often referred to as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘surface-level activism’ or ‘arm-chair protests’ refers to the activism that is done to increase one’s social clout and capital rather than the true devotion to a cause. Stating it in simpler words- it is when people who activism for a cause in order to seek attention and popularity or when they do it just for the fad. This form of activism has grown immensely because of the wide accessibility to social media and networking sites. The likes, comments, posts, pictures, videos etc., that are uploaded ‘in support’ of any cause are considered as elements of performative activism. Performative activism is generally pitted against genuine allyship and often considered as a hindrance to any cause or movement.
There are many viewpoints on this matter. From the perspective of the social science professors to social workers to those whose actions are labelled as performative. In order to form our own perspective on the matter or to merely understand the raging discussion, we have to identify its forms and appreciate the crux of the arguments of both sides. It is quite challenging to categorize actions into performative and genuine categories because one never knows the actual motive behind a person’s actions. However, it is a common consensus that forms of social media protests are largely considered to be of the performative nature. This includes common people putting the #BLM fists or the pride month rainbow flags on their social media handles. It also includes celebrities and businesses using riots and protests as opportunities for their own PR. Nevertheless, it is important to note that not all people whose actions are categorized as ‘performative’ are actually being fake. Many a time people are naïve and ignorant about the fact that their actions may be deemed performative. The easiest way to differentiate is by identifying the effects of such activism, something beyond simply occupying digital space.
Critics of performative activism claim that it is ‘all talk and no action’. While in theory, there is absolutely no objection to activism through social media, in practice it brings about no real change to the situation as no real action has been taken. It only aids people to exploit the pain and sufferings of others behind the veil of ‘being woke’. This side of the debate claims that the inherent problem with performative activism (especially social media activism) succeeds at just one thing and that is to drag the attention from the actual issues to the surrounding baseless cacophony. When a person posts something related to a movement and then somehow associates it with themselves, it makes the whole situation very narrow and individualistic. This is the exact opposite of what a movement or protest aims for. Some deem it to be worse than silence.
On the other hand, social media activists, influencers and other experts have opposite views and form the other side of the debate. They remind us to note the very nature of social media. Social media in itself is inherently performative in nature. So, we cannot entirely blame any kind of support in the media for lacking actual execution or performance. Moreover, it is no secret that the so-called performative action has brought about significant changes in many instances. From animal welfare to blood donation, to helping refugees seeking asylum it has helped those in need countless times. It has also played a major role in propagating the very first step of a movement i.e., awareness. Social media campaigns by individuals and celebrities have aided in spreading awareness about the various acts of discrimination and oppression. It has also inspired others to raise their voices that were hitherto unheard of.
While performative activism might not be completely redundant, neither can be a substitute for tangible action. This debate is on a matter that is not starkly black and white because the different forms of activism are not essentially mutually exclusive. One can still term their performative activism as genuine allyship provided that they care to find out the true cause and effects of the issue- including the uncomfortable facts and narratives. Self-reflection on one’s own actions will help to build consistency and eventually bridge the gap between performative and genuine allyship.
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