Today I Learnt: Performative Activism And How It Is Harmful To The Very Movements It Starts Out To Support

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Earlier this year, as the social media erupted with news of worldwide protest for the Black Lives Matter movement, one term that did rounds was Performative Activism. While I was aware of the term before, I had never paid much attention to it before the lockdown began. But then suddenly, and I know I am not the only one noticing this trend, everybody was an activist on their social medias. So what exactly is performative activism? In layman terms, it is when people participate in an activist movement, not because they believe in the cause but because they want to be popular. It is a fake, or rather an acutely shallow form of activism that often occurs online on social sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Signs Of Being A Performative Activist

Typically, this activist act is done on purpose to appear that the person is part of something. Or to look like the person has the same interests as his/her followers. Other times, the person may do it naively, not realising that his stories and posts are not equivalent to doing any actual work to bring about a change.  Another example of performative activism includes celebrities posting images of themselves ‘protesting’, which are actually just photo ops. I recently remember coming across many posts seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, the 18-year-old Black student killed by the police, which merely had celebrities posting pictures of themselves with the caption “now that I have your attention, Breonna Taylor‘s murderers have not been arrested”. Not only are such posts tone-deaf in nature, but they also are repulsive in the way they seek to capitalise on someone else’s suffering.

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Then are the business organisations that have started posting on their social media accounts to showcase their support to movements. They make sweeping proclamations, but the question that remains is: how many of them have actually done something for these causes, beside taking up digital spaces? One instance I remember was from the time when Article 377 was abolished in the country two years back. Many organisations, even the ones that were previously called out for fostering homophobic work-environments, suddenly started posting the pride flag on their social-media cover pictures. The move looked great, sure. But till date hardly any of these places have worked to even provide basic amenities (like bathrooms) for transgender people working in their company. Hence as we can clearly see, such performative activism helps no one. Instead it merely distracts the attention from the real issues.

What’s The Way Out?

Activism is not a work that is supposed to be ‘trendy’. It’s not a competition of who can be the most ‘woke’ person; this work is continuous, and takes effort beyond our phones and couches. So how do we make sure that what we are doing is not merely a performance for the gram? First, we need to make sure that we are truly informed about the issues. This comes from not just picking and choosing the facts that make us comfortable. We need to truly understand the history of the cause we want to support, and sometimes even need to admit the roles we might or might not have played in perpetuating oppressive systems. And we can only do so by accepting the honest, more uncomfortable narratives.

Secondly, we need to be consistent in our support. No cause or movement needs fair-weather allies. What we say on social media must be the exact same things we are ready to follow in real life. At the end of the day, what we are posting on social media is useless if we’re not also questioning and working on our own selves. This by no means is saying that social media doesn’t play any role in bringing about change. But while they’re not singing or making hollow videos, such posts, raised fists, and carefully ghost-written words mean nothing if we all know it’s for show. Such words are necessary, but they’re just the bare minimum. Without concrete action behind them, they only serve to let people, celebrities and organisations off the hook. And the only thing worse than no effort is fake effort.

Views expressed are author’s own

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