Activism ADD: Moving Beyond Cause Tourism

social media revolutionFor a couple of weeks in 2011, you couldn’t get away from the Kony 2012 campaign on Facebook. The campaign, started by the group Invisible Children, was intended to raise awareness to the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony. There’s no question that this was a worthy cause. Kony is a notorious Ugandan mass murderer, rapist, child kidnapper, and warlord.

The goal was to create awareness through a viral video campaign (as well as t-shirts, bracelets and more) which would make finding and capturing (or killing) him an international priority.

But 2012 came and went and Kony was never caught—justice was never served.

Cause Tourism: the real problem

What I find astounding is that two years later, we never hear about it. When I think about the impassioned pleas from the hundreds of Facebook friends who plastered it all over social media, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard one of them follow up. Not one.

In fact, the campaign died on social media as swiftly as it started and just . . . disappeared.

It’s not the only issue of its kind. Remember the #bringbackourgirls movement after Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from a Nigerian boarding school last Spring?

It’s been five months and there has been no resolution there, and much of the Western passion and interest has waned.

We, in the West, have a preoccupation with the causes and issues in exotic countries but we lack long-term focus. It’s like the West is best represented by Downton Abbey’s Crawley family talking in concerned voices about the less fortunate, while really only showing interest in what’s going to affect the Abbey and their social hierarchy.

The rise of slacktivism

Social media has empowered slacktivism, the perfect term to describe the tendency toward activities that make us feel like we’re having an impact but without offering any real, practical help. When I passionately share an update, contribute to a hashtag, or sign an online petition, I’m simply engaging in slacktivism. I am telling myself and the world, “Right this second, I am really passionate about this issue,” but it’s often a case of convincing myself (and others) that I am socially aware and compassionate. Heaven forbid that there’s a trending cause where I haven’t participated.

But here’s the problem:

If my concern only burns brightly as long as current social interest dictates, what am I really contributing? If I I throw money at a cause that’s captured my attention because of a viral campaign (the Kony campaign raised over $30 million without following through on the main objective) and then I never think about it again, how involved am I?

There are still child soldiers in Uganda and missing schoolgirls in Nigeria and it seems incredibly sad to think that for a couple of days we really cared about their ungodly plight, but then we just sort of forgot.

It’s like any other form of tourism—I was really invested when it was right in front of me, but since then I’ve moved on.

Are we saving the starfish?

I think social media provides a powerful platform for communicating and raising awareness for many of the world’s issues. I don’t fault the Kony 2012 campaign in the slightest. But is there a chance that we’re just training ourselves to hyper-emotionally respond to causes without the intent to care about them tomorrow?

There’s that old story about the beach full of dying starfish who can’t make it to the surf and the child who is running around, picking them up, and throwing them into the life-saving water. “Why bother,” asks an old man, “you’ll never save them all.”
“Well,” says the boy throwing another into the salty water, “it matters to this one.”

That’s an enduring story for a reason. Every little bit helps and doing what we can is important.

But the cause tourism version of this story goes something like this:

There was a beach full of dying starfish who could not make it to the water that would save them. A little boy saw their plight and was so moved that he began running up and down the beach yelling, “Everyone! The starfish are dying. To arms! To arms! We have to save these starfish!”
The people were so moved by the child’s passion that they, too, began to run up and down the beach yelling, “Save the starfish! We need to save the starfish!”
And then they all went to lunch and never thought about the starfish again.

The problems isn’t that we’ve tried to save the starfish and failed. It isn’t that we helped some of the starfish and were not able to help them all. It’s that we made such a show about saving them and then simply moved on with no resolution whatsoever.

So what’s the answer?

How can we respond to the cause du jour in a way that honors it?

First of all, maybe we shouldn’t base our response on the popularity of a campaign or even our emotional response. Maybe we should we should find ways to communicate about things we’re generally invested in for the long term.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves before we share a cause or issue, am I going to be invested in and concerned about this story in a month from now—even if no one else is? We could even schedule a calendar reminder for a couple months out to check back into that story and see how it’s progressing.

I honestly don’t know how we find the right balance, but I am afraid that our current level of commitment to these issues is not doing them justice.

I do know that the children and countries these causes represent deserve more than empty flash-in-the-pan activism.

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