Are you a charity ‘slacker’? How social media has created a culture of ‘slactivism’

Fred Clark is a blogger, at the Slacktivist blog for Patheos’ progressive Christian channel and is also a graduate of Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I spoke to him about the term ‘slacktivism’ – labelling people who like and share awareness or charity memes on facebook or twitter without actively engaging with the cause.

Fred Clark gave some outstanding answers. Here is the interview in full.

Alyce: You’ve been blogging about 12 years. These days, just about everyone is on social media, from 80 year olds to 8 year olds. Have you seen (in your opinion) a change in the way people interact now that “everyone” is on social media, not just teens and tech-enthusiasts? Is social media here to stay?

Fred: I started blogging in 2002. I think social media are here to stay, but I expect the forms and forums will continue to evolve. Some folks interact on a variety of platforms, some stick mainly to one — blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc. I have no idea what the Next Big Thing in social media will be, but my guess is that we’re headed less toward the “next Facebook” than toward platforms that will allow people to seamlessly combine all of these various mini-worlds.

Alyce: You claim to have coined the term “slactivism” is that correct? When did you coin it, or when did you first see it used?

Fred: In 1994, I was working with Dwight Ozard on Prism magazine, the publication of a parachurch nonprofit called Evangelicals for Social Action, which works to get American evangelicals more engaged in helping the poor and the powerless. We were getting ready to give a series of seminars at the Cornerstone Festival — a big Christian music festival held every summer in Illinois, hosted by the Jesus People USA. The seminars were aimed mainly at younger people — Gen Xers like ourselves who, back in the ’90s, still qualified as younger people.

Alyce: What is slactivism?

Fred: This was right when the generational cycle of fretting about “kids these days” was reaching its peak, much the way we seem at that point right now with older folks fretting about “Millennials.” We were kind of tired of that. “Slackers” had become a kind of all-purpose dismissive term for Gen Xers due to Richard Linklater’s movie of that name. Linklater’s irony was lost on many pundits and scolds, who also seemed to take “Here we are now, entertain us” at face value as the cry of our generation. Even some Baby Boomer activists we admired and looked up to had taken to lecturing our whole generation about our supposed lack of activism, awareness and concern. I think they were trying to inspire us with tales of the glory days from their protest marches in the 1960s, but to our ears they came across like Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch.

So we set out to tell stories about young people from this supposed generation of “slackers” who were changing the world in ways that people might not notice if all they were looking for was the next March on Washington. We contrasted the ineffectiveness of top-down, headline-grabbing efforts like “Hands Across America” with the smaller-scale, front-line, hands-on efforts of young people creating change as urban homesteaders or Habitat for Humanity volunteers, or a thousand other examples of modest and modestly effective projects undertaken by deeply committed “slackers.”

I titled our series “Slacker Activism.” Dwight shortened that to “slacktivism.” At that time it meant something like what David Bowie sang about in “Changes”: “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world.”

The word faded away along with the eventual fading of the “Gen X” hype, but it was revived about a decade later to refer to the idea of forwarding an email or clicking “like” *instead* of actually doing anything. Linklater’s original irony — and ours — was lost in the new usage, which reverted to “slacker” as a dismissive pejorative rather than as a defiant rejection of that dismissal — a determination to prove it wrong.

Gen-Xers had originally embraced the term in order to take it away from Vice Principal Strickland types. You might remember him as the character in “Back to the Future” who mocked uber-Gen-Xer Marty McFly by telling him, “You’re a slacker, McFly. And you’ll always be a slacker.”

So I’m kind of disappointed to see Dwight’s word being used now in a Strickland-esque way, but alas, just because he got to coin a new word doesn’t mean he gets to control it. (Dwight passed away in 2005.)

Alyce: I have been reading about charity/awareness memes that are so prevalent on platforms, particularly such as facebook. These are often inspirational pictures or phrases that people like and share, often without really connecting with or supporting the charity. Are these OK, as they “awareness-raise” or so you feel that they are ineffective and pointless? Your honest opinion here.

Fred: Many of these charity/awareness memes are probably, to quote Douglas Adams, mostly harmless. But not entirely harmless. Whatever little good they may do at increasing “awareness” is likely cancelled out by the harm they do at increasing a kind of self-satisfied self-righteousness.

These things don’t really spread in order to raise the sort of awareness that produces tangible public support. They tend to function more as a totem signifying “Look at me. I’m good.” They spread like a chain letter, “If you agree to allow me to say I’m a good person, then I’ll agree to allow you to say you’re a good person.” That’s why poor Craig Shergold, who’s now 34 years old, is still deluged with get-well cards sent to his childhood self. People don’t actually care about him as a person at all, they just want to convince themselves that they’re caring people. It’s about their feelings, not about him.

And it turns out that self-satisfied self-righteousness is actually an enemy to the kind of “awareness” that might produce positive change. People who are already convinced of their goodness don’t see any need to change.

Alyce: Are we getting slack as a society? If someone receives a meme on their feed saying “like this if you wish cancer didn’t exist!” or “share if your think this (down syndrome) little girl is beautiful” what do you think they should do? Should they share it? Delete it? Research charities/organisations that support the cause?

Fred: I often just ignore or delete those. Sometimes I try to suggest a more tangible step if someone seems to have a genuine concern for whatever the issue at issue happens to be — something along the lines of that terrific Swedish Unicef campaign where they said, “Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against polio. We have nothing against likes, but vaccine costs money. Please buy polio vaccine at unicef.se. It will only cost you 4 euros, but will save the lives of 12 children.”

But that’s rare, since as you note, these things tend to be incredibly broad, expressing a sentiment it would be impossible to disagree with and which, therefore, it seems unlikely that the sender is genuinely concerned about.

I tend to describe this as the “Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition.” Every time some horrific act of animal cruelty makes the news, the comment section in the news report fills up with people who feel an urgent need to clarify that they do not approve of burning kittens. That’s good! I’d hate to see them say otherwise. But the remarkable thing is that there’s a tone of proud defiance to such declarations — as though they were taking a bold and controversial stand for stating what seems like an absolute lowest common denominator. They seem convinced, in other words, that they are a righteous remnant, courageously, heroically, swimming against the current in a world filled with kitten-burners and puppy-kickers and with people who like cancer and hate little girls with Down syndrome.

And the problem with that is it doesn’t stop. Once your identity is bound up in a sense of sanctimonious superiority, you’re never satisfied in simply thinking of yourself as slightly more virtuous than others. You need to think of yourself as vastly better — which means imagining “them” (whoever “they” may be) as increasingly monstrous and depraved. C.S. Lewis called such self-righteousness “the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.”

Alyce: You are Christian but belong to a liberal church, is that correct? (by this it seems that the church you are involved at has liberal views on issues such as pro-choice, pro-GLBT etc).

Fred: I was born and raised in the fundamentalist/evangelical church and still regard myself as an evangelical Christian. But, as you note, most of my fellow evangelical Christians would say that my pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights views would disqualify me from that community. So nowadays I’m an evangelical Baptist expatriate in the Episcopal Church.

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