ACTIVISM-[SL]ACTIVISM: An Essay by Erika Jahn

Erika Jahn is a Projects Coordinator for Breast Cancer Action Montreal and a writer for Kickaction, “an online community space for girls and young women who think for themselves, take a stand and act creatively to bring positive change to their communities and across the globe.” On March 17th, 2011 Jahn posted an essay on as part of the Girls Action Foundation’s annual blogging carnival. With permission, the Pink Ribbon Blues Blog republishes “PINK!, (RED), AND GREEN: IMPRESSIONS ON [SL]ACKTIVISM, FEMIN[IN]ISM, AND WHERE THAT LEAVES US ON ENVIRONMENTALISM.”

I’m a little concerned these days that we are going to hell in a hand basket.

Most days I describe myself as an eternal optimist, encouraged by mentors, teachers and activists that we can make our world better. We can eradicate poverty, we can achieve gender equity, we can be healthy, and we can live peacefully. The slogan of our generation is “Yes, we can!” right?

Few of my peers would describe themselves as apathetic. Most bring reusable bags to the grocery store, few are homophobic, many are vegetarians, and some even do yoga. Others still run for the cure, blog or tweet on gender issues, sign petitions, or buy (RED), Pink! or green products to support their latest favorite cause. These are all ways we can make a difference, right?

In my recent blog post (“why I hate pink breast cancer crap & 6 reasons queers should care”) I wrote about some of my concerns regarding contemporary trends in feminism, specifically, that contemporary feminism is too frilly, too pink and too nice and too often reinforces the status quo. I am concerned that young feminists are conflating girl-power with feminism, or said differently, that the celebration of femininity equals empowerment. The same could be said for the green movement, and so on.

My second, and related, concern has to do with the ways in which we engage in activism. Are current forms of “activism” rocking the boat enough? Is buying Pink!, (RED), or green allowing us to feel good while not confronting systemic issues of women’s health, AIDS, and environmental degradation? Is buying according to your colour-coded ethical claim enough? Does “liking” a non-profit on Facebook make you an activist for the cause?  What kinds of activists does a culture of consumer activism and “buy ____(adjective) for _____(noun)” nurture?

In a recent article in the New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”, Malcolm Gladwell controversially argued that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is”. Gladwell suggests that we have overestimated the importance and the efficacy of social media in creating social change, and that true activism comes as a result of relationships with other activists and of a personal connection to an issue. His real claim is that effective activism is high-risk, and that those engaging in online activism – or twitter revolutions if you will – invest very little personally, and take minimal risks in the execution of social change.

“It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices”, Gladwell writes. “In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.”

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE me my twitter. I am addicted to Facebook. I have taken courses on how to do social media more effectively, and engaging in online activism is a big part of my current job. And… yet, I feel like Gladwell (as usual) makes a striking point, and one that continues to concern me and forces me to reflect on my personal activism and on current cultures of activism more broadly.

A famous feminist quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich states that “well behaved women rarely make history”. I see this on bumper stickers a lot and while it could be seen as an overused platitude, I believe that it still rings true, but not just for women. Those who are afraid to rock the boat, to “confront socially entrenched norms and practices” as Gladwell states, rarely make history. When we tweet petitions to other like minded people, or when we are only willing to speak our minds – calling out bigotry, sexism, homophobia or racism – in circles of people who already agree with us, we are doing little to confront these norms. As far as Gladwell is concerned, true activism is risky, and it can be scary.

However, we are a generation who has learned that we have purchasing power, that we can make ethical purchases to support our causes. Our generation knows what it means to buy pink!, (red) and green. But does buying pink!, (red), or green get us anything more than “social acknowledgment and praise” as Gladwell suggests? So many of us engage in consumer activism and it seems to be a deeply entrenched aspect of our current culture and is proving to be a truly genius marketing strategy, because if there is one thing our generation is good at, it is consumption.

Our consumer culture offers us unlimited opportunities to be consumer activists, to engage in novel notions of do-gooding. (RED) for example, “is a simple idea that transforms our incredible collective power as consumers into a financial force to help others in need.” The expectation is clear with both Pink! And (RED) movements that your purchasing decisions can change lives, but do they ask you to risk, to forego, to sacrifice anything at all? Do these movements point to or implicate us in the problem? The (RED) movement acknowledges our identities and roles as consumers in doing good, but does not point out that this same role and the inequality it fuels and fueled by, may have implications for the people they claim to help – the African poor.

Cause marketing allows large corporations to benefit from our desire to feel good, which translates into feeling good about the company that gave us the opportunity. In reality, the 5 cents that Starbucks donates to the (RED) cause, is now 5 cents they don’t need to spend on marketing or advertisements. There is no loss, and only gain for these corporations.

For pink ribbon purchases, the same can be said, although in many cases there is something even more insidious going on. Alcohol producers, cosmetic manufacturers, greasy-chicken wing restaurants, etc ad infinitum, all benefit from pink ribbon purchases, while most probably contributing to the cause of breast cancer with their high fat foods, toxic alcohol, and endocrine-disrupting chemical-laden perfumes and rouges. As an aside, many commentators on the topic suggest the only reason that breast cancer/pink ribbon culture has been so successful in the public realm is because it does such a good job of maintaining the status quo. It reinforces notions of femininity, and gender norms, is a symbol of maternalism, and also because it is a token cause (albeit a very safe one) for corporations, politicians and celebrities to get behind without getting anyone’s panties in a knot.

What does this have to do with environmentalism? Well, I see the green movement following in the footsteps of the pink and (RED) ones. Well, not the green movement per se, but rather, many companies are offering us opportunities to “go green” in our purchasing choices. Too often however, their claims are simply green-washed, and more importantly, just as with the previous examples, I worry that we are allowing ourselves to alleviate our guilt through green consumption while not making any substantive changes in our lifestyles, habits, and most importantly, in our way of thinking.

What do you think? Is there reason to be concerned? Does the existence of these campaigns increase awareness about the problem and so we shouldn’t be so haste in judging them? Or, do they only assuage our guilt, release us from responsibility, and maintain the status quo? Is the personal investment too little?

Brief Biography:

Erika Jahn’s intellectual interests range from philosophy, politics and law, to queer theory, and feminist ethics. She is actively engaged in activism related to food security issues, animal rights, literacy, and the environment and is a passionate vegan cook. Her intellectual and philosophical idol is Simone de Beauvoir and she works at Breast Cancer Action Montreal as a Projects Coordinator, working on issues of women’s environmental health. She recently graduated from Harvard University where she studied religion and politics. While originally hailing from British Columbia she now makes Montreal home with her girlfriend Rachelle and thier cat Boo. Follow her on twitter @DearSimone @FemmeToxic or @BCAMontreal


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2 comments to ACTIVISM-[SL]ACTIVISM: An Essay by Erika Jahn

  • Another brilliant essay Erika. We have become a society of lazy philanthropists and “slacktivists”. We throw money at a cause and sit back and think we’ve done our bit. If you’re not directly affected by the very cause you purport to support, then where’s the motivation to ask the deeper probing questions? To really consider whether an organization is fulfilling its mission and doing right by its donors and society as a whole? Not much. And that’s just the way the corporations like it. The perfect marriage of altruistic appearances, effective and cheap advertising, and profits, profits, profits.

  • That’s just what Gladwell argues in the New Yorker article that Erika cites: “Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires…Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice…The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

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