A good friend of mine sent me an email asking some good questions about the Trayvon Martin situation, and tying it into questions over paternalism and slacktivism…
“Lots of people are up in arms about the incident but is there a danger of those outside of his family and immediate community declaring their outrage and unity and demanding x, y and z? Are those who spread the story on Facebook just slacktivists. If not, then how is this situation crucially different from other cases of activism that you and others have criticized?”
There’s a lot to unpack here. And it’s quite challenging actually to think about. But here are my thoughts
- Is there a danger of those outside of his family and immediate community declaring their outrage and unity and demanding x, y and z?
Yes, there is…though I didn’t actually think about it in this way originally. For instance, yesterday I tweeted that the energy at the Trayvon rally yesterday was tremendous and it was great to see such a diverse crowd. And I did feel good about it. I still do, as that broadbased support is what is necessary in order to bring about change on an issue, which, while it cuts across boundaries, also tends to afflict certain communities considerably more than others. However, I can see how someone could make a parallel between something like the Kony2012 video and the demands that were made and the criticism it received with those of Trayvon and the campaigns and calls for arrests and prosecution, which have been lauded.
At the same time, I think there are many important differences between the two, which are important to this situation in particular, but which also shine a light on how one might want to approach any situation to help and promote causes they want to support. The first is that Trayvon’s parents and community are appreciative of the support that they are receiving from what I understand. They were the ones who started the campaign on change.org that was the impetus for the #millionhoodiemarch, which they also attended and supported as well. The campaign itself is also ultimately calling for the prosecution of George Zimmerman.
Therefore, in many ways, this is the exact opposite of a paternalistic approach of some outsider flying in, and, without consulting the family and broader affected community, deciding what course of action should be taken to bring about justice. Instead, the supporters in the Trayvon Martin case are supporting the wishes of the family and community and are, from what I’ve seen, only trying to empower them to continue to fight for what the family and community see as justice. And I think that’s beautiful and positive and should be applauded and replicated.
- Are those who spread the story on Facebook just slacktivists?
I think that there is an important question here as well. But I think it’s important to take a step backwards to answer the question first. The implication here is that slacktivism, by itself, is a bad thing. However, I don’t have a tremendous problem with slacktivism purely because it is a passive approach to expressing support for a cause. Of course, I think it would be much better for people to get involved at a deeper level and I wonder about whether slacktivism even has a material effect on the outcomes people support on Twitter, Facebook and even campaigns. Actually, quite possibly, especially campaigns. But I don’t think it is harming anyone for someone to tweet or post a status update or change their profile picture as a show of support.
Instead, the danger of slacktivism (and I realize I am doing this subject a disservice by throwing this out there, since it probably requires a much deeper discussion) is that it is so easy, that people engage on a purely emotional level. That can take many forms, from the positive (“This is outrageous and sad and I want to share with everyone else to help change it.”) to the self-serving (“This makes me appear to care about the world to my friends”). But true engagement requires not only an emotional connection, which is a necessary component, but also an informed connection, which is the sufficient component. And that, to me, is the largest problem with slacktivism by itself.
So, to answer the question posed. As with almost any cause in our social media driven world now, I think there are many people that jumped on the bandwagon of Trayvon Martin as slacktivists for both the positive and cynical reasons stated above. I also think that many are not well-informed to take some of the positions that have been thrown about. For instance, there are many people saying that George Zimmerman should be thrown in jail or given the death penalty without understanding that there is a significantly good chance that he might avoid prosecution altogether only because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law which grants “true immunity” to those that claim self-defense, even while using deadly force. That’s because “true immunity, the Florida Supreme Court said, means a trial judge can dismiss a prosecution, based on a Stand Your Ground assertion, before trial begins.” And if that happens, what comes next. I shudder to think of the possibilities, as I wonder how many people advocating for Zimmerman’s arrest understand that the hands of law enforcement and the prosecution might be tied due to a law that they didn’t even support, but which was pushed through by elected officials at the behest of the NRA lobby. Without seeing that big picture, are those expressing support and engaging in slacktivism actually aiming at the wrong target? Quite possibly. And that would be problematic.
- How is this situation crucially different from other cases of activism that you and others have criticized?
All that being said, I keep coming back to the idea that the key factor which makes the Trayvon situation different than other cases of activism and slacktivism that I and others have criticized in the past is that it has been initiated by those that are the key stakeholders (parents primarily, community secondarily). Further, the goal that they’ve set is actually to get as much information that has apparently been hidden into the open and allow the process to run its course through the court system. It is not to set up vigilante groups to kill Zimmerman, nor is there a systematic effort to distort information to gain support for their cause to my knowledge. It could be argued that people who know better, but do not inform the slacktivists of the reasons why prosecution may not be possible could be accused of throwing red meat to a dog, but I actually have seen very little of that. Instead, what I’ve seen is an attempt to inform as much as possible as to the specific case, the overall issue of racial profiling and the difficulties related to the Stand Your Ground law.
And, if we are abiding by the ethos of “first, do no harm…”, more information never hurt anyone.