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Friday, December 03, 2010

Activism or "Slacktivism"?

The other day, I happened to be browsing the news and read about the co-Founder of Facebook starting a new service - Jumo.com. Apparently, in its present “beta” form, Jumo is positioned as a platform to help like-minded people connect with each other to help come together over a project or issue that was up for resolution. This was supposed to be different from the “Causes” feature on Facebook, but without getting into too many details -- I didn’t bother with that either -- I couldn’t really see the difference. Furthermore, you needed a Facebook account to be able to log into Jumo, which seems strange because I imagine a more “OpenID” approach would be in order for this kind of thing. Then, I happened to read an article titled “HOW TO: Turn Slacktivists into Activist with Social Media” on Mashable.com, generally the first people to break this kind of news, at least on Twitter, and it got me thinking. I was more curious about this word, “Slacktivism,” which to me seemed to be along the lines of what I previously referred to as “armchair philosophy,” namely being all talk and no action. Turns out, that was exactly what it was, at least according to the Wikipedia definition which states, “Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism) is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is considered a pejorative term that describes "feel-good" measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.” Then, I brought to mind all the causes I had been gung-ho about in my days as a person who fought for causes because they were “right”. Or at least they seemed worth fighting for at the time. And, I was reminded about why I gave up activism for Slacktivism.

There were a hundred different ways in which the school I studied at was involved with improving the lives of the local community. By the time we hit high school, we had a few hours a week of scheduled extra-curricular activity that took us out into the nearby villages and townships, doing everything from spending time with children in an orphanage, to consoling and putting smiles on the faces of the people at the old folks home, to giving the blackboards a new coat of black paint, seeing as to how they were all a smoothed out section of wall with a ½-inch cement border that was raised to demarcate where the board ended and the wall began. It felt good, yes, because I could see that we were making a difference. I mean, with the painting of the blackboards, we would know we were finished once we saw a bunch of glossy, black rectangles on the front wall of the classrooms, which in many cases you could count the number of on a single hand. Sure there was a bossy principal every now and then who would come along and make sure that we doing a satisfactory job, with a “Hey, you missed a spot,” forgetting that we weren’t getting paid for this. But on the whole, we just put people like that out of our minds and went on doing what we were supposed to, because it was one of the little things that we could do to give back to the community. On the whole, I really appreciated the fact that the school made the effort to help us understand the importance of reaching out to the community around us to improve our collective existence.

The next couple of examples that came to mind included putting a small amount of money into an envelope that they handed out to us on an airline. I was traveling alone, on my way back to school, and when I saw all the poor, starving children on the envelope, and then noticed that I could really spare the amount in question plus a 100, my heart melted. I gave the envelope to one of the members of the cabin crew as I was exiting the aircraft, and didn’t stick around for a thank-you, which I still happened to hear from behind me. It wasn’t about the gratitude for me, it just felt good to be able to help. Then, there was the time that a couple of friends of mine and I set up a table on campus to collect donations for a devastating earthquake that had rocked our homeland, India. We managed to put together a decent bit of “loose change” that we handed over to an international aid agency, which we happened to be coordinating with to get the money back to the people who needed it. Also, it would legitimize the fact that there were three or four of us, raggedy-looking college students trying to make money, which without the official endorsement by the aid agency may as well have been a fundraiser for booze for the weekend. Then, there was this one time that I happened to catch a friend waiting for a bus, which was interesting because he lived less than a minute from the bus stop. I asked him where he was headed, and he said there was a rally on to help some exotic animals find a better home. Being my cup of tea, I tagged along, and discovered that the issue surrounded three spider monkeys -- apparently there were four, but one of them died in transit -- who were at that moment in quarantine, being “exotic” and not from this place, soon to be cleared and put behind the bar in a nightclub, so that they could be a “live exhibit” and the next big thing in that club. Once we got there, I grabbed the biggest sign, and marched to the edge of the pavement to hold it up. My sign read, “Honk for support,” and although I did occasionally get ‘the finger’ the overall response was overwhelmingly a resounding honk from most passers-by. To me, it seemed criminal that someone would go through so much trouble to import a non-indigenous species of animal, only to have it live in a cacophonous and stressful environment, simply for the entertainment of a bunch of people who were there to drink and dance. It was like a circus, but far more pointless.

Later on, once I started working, I participated in a couple of blood drives and visited a school for the blind which really impressed me, making a couple of donations, especially on my birthday. In fact, I remember going back there once to offer my teaching/training services to them, and I had a very meaningful discussion with the man running the place. Unfortunately for me, they were looking for people with a different set of skills, but welcomed me back anytime I wanted to drop by and see if they needed anything. Although I was a little disappointed at not being able to help out right then, I took it in my stride and looked forward to the next available chance. And, there are a bunch of other little near-activist stories from my life, but suffice it to say that the examples I have provided I intended to use as the broad strokes that would paint me as a mild-mannered activist. Still, an “activist” nonetheless.

Reading about slacktivism, it reminded me of all the times I’ve said that most people are “all talk and no action” when it came to saving the world, as it were. Inspired by how Gandhi turned his life into a search for truth, I even experimented with vegetarianism, and taking coldwater bucket baths all through winter, just to try and save water and energy. Yet, for all that I have said so far, I’ve done nothing more than talk about a lot of the issues that I’ve “made an issue” about. In truth, I’m nothing more than a rotten slacktivist. It’s only now that I’ve discovered the cojones to accept it. Once I’d crossed this mental hurdle, I began to reflect on all the misguided “activism” I had either been a party to, or close enough to be able to understand what really went on. Or at least, what really went wrong. Allow me to revisit all of the examples I’ve provided, and to fill you in on other details about them.

The school “Social Experience” program conducted one curious activity. They would bring a bunch of school kids to our campus -- and these were some of the extremely “have-not” children, I must say, -- and they would take them to our computer labs and let the children explore these machines by showing them a few games they could play. Once time was up, the kids were packed up in their buses, smiling of course, and sent back to their will-probably-never-see-another-computer-in-my-natural-life lives. I didn’t get the point of that, and thankfully, I never signed up for that assignment. But what was the point of that? In my mind, the equivalent would be teaching someone to sculpt, and then chopping off his/her hands, hoping that one day they would learn to sculpt with their feet, because when the person did sculpt, he/she seemed to love to do it. Next, the donation on the airlines, well, the risk I took there was that there was nothing stopping people from siphoning the money into their own pockets. Perhaps the stewardess wouldn’t do it, because she gets a handsome salary, but someone somewhere was bound to get their filthy paws on it. A couple of years later, this same organization was in the news because funds had been embezzled, and contrary to what the envelope had said about making a difference to a child’s life for a whole year, the children were worse off than before. Don’t see what I’m saying? Well, then you should ask yourself how after the tsunami that devastated a lot of coastal South East Asia, there are people living in crudely fashioned “wigwams” near the beach in many parts of Tamil Nadu, still waiting for their bit of “aid” to get to them. It’s the same thing with the “earthquake” fund that we set up and collected money for. Well, not entirely, and here’s a brief aside about this incident. We spent a week on campus, trying to get as much as we could, and the people who donated without hesitation were those of every other nationality, except the Indian students on campus. In fact, apart from the friends who set this up and a few others, almost every single Indian student would make it a point to cross the street and walk on the opposite side, avoiding eye-contact at all times. It was funny, come to think of it. Moving on to the “spider monkeys,” it turns out that because the nightclub had followed the law in getting the appropriate licenses, and because they didn’t try and skip the mandatory quarantine and observation period that every “alien species” had to go through, it was alright to have the monkeys sit behind the bar. I never went in to check them out, and we saw that the humongous bouncers, as well as nightclub management, had made a note of who was at that picketing event that day, taking pictures galore. I think they imported another one shortly after, just because, you know, “Three is a crowd,” and four is a party. Just the sort of thing a nightclub needed, I’m sure.

The school for the blind that I talked about had a far more ingenious system of ensuring it got what it needed, and in the couple of years that I had known about it, they had expanded their operations to another couple of buildings to house the growing influx of blind and under-privileged children. Also, they had featured in the news several times for being one of the first schools in the city to ensure that a blind student got her Masters Degree. This is a special case in my search for and understanding of what a “cause” is, and the only thing I can say about it is that it goes beyond activism. There are no rallies and no demonstrations about anything. Just a school for the blind that is working towards becoming more self-sufficient, so that it is not at the mercy of its donor pool, no matter how much they claim they really care.

One of the many buzz words in the corporate world in the last decade has been “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR). It’s the overt way in which companies try and show the world that they are giving back to the community. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some heads of CSR, and to have participated in the events that the companies I’ve worked for have managed to put together. One of the companies I worked for used to set up one day a year when they would close the office so that every single employee would have to go and spend the day participating in the many programs that had been set up. It was organized in true corporate fashion, with sign up sheets popping up a couple of months before the event, followed by meeting invites sent to your Outlook, and then a whole slew of meetings about who does what and why. It was fun, and exciting for me, a generally accepted cynic when it came to believing that there was scope for charity no matter how motivated by profit an organization could be. Here I was, helping design some material that would help the cause I had signed up for -- helping people who didn’t have access to fancy schools and training institutes, for purely financial reasons, learn about how to face an interview, prepare a résumé and be otherwise job-hunting ready -- and all signs seemed to indicate that this might actually be worthwhile. Yet, after all the lead up to this event, the day came and went quite quickly, with only a big party to show for it that evening, and a couple of mentions in the newspapers the next day. It struck me as strange that a one-off approach to helping people out was deemed effective. I stayed on at the company for another couple of months, but in that time, none of the people who had been a part of our group could tell me anything about any follow-up being done, you know, like finding out if any of those people had actually gotten jobs thanks to our assistance. Then, another company I worked for, and there are two hilarious stories here, they had a bit of a bonanza going with the whole CSR thing, because there was a school that the company, or at least our office -- there were three offices in the city -- had taken under its wing. Soon after I joined this organization, there was a 5-mile walk event where all of us as employees were supposed to try and collect donations from our friends and family, and our amounts would be matched by the company, where the total sum would go to the school at the end of all of it. It was only a walk, so I thought it shrewd of management to have kept effort to a minimum, while keeping the fun factor high. When I got to the event that fine morning, I was a bit surprised to see two things: 1) An Ambulance and 2) a bunch of kids from the school, all lined up and dressed in their best clothes, standing at the ready to sing us a song. The ambulance was a hoot because I couldn’t figure out why those who walked at the risk of dying would even consider participating. I mean, how hard is it to figure out that any charity prefers a live donor rather than a dead, fat-assed, lump of human being? The kids? That was just wrong. Either that, or it was the cruel irony of  the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” in real life. Worse? I got there a half hour before the walk started, and it didn’t begin officially until about a half hour after the scheduled time. That means those poor kids were just sitting there since forever. Anyway, the event got underway after a few words from one of the Directors, and the kids had sung their song. Now, it was a walk, remember, and it was only five miles long, around the outside track of a large and beautiful park. So, imagine my surprise when I noticed a bunch of tables at the end of every mile, laden with not just cups of water, for us poor walkers, but also several kinds of juice. It was so ridiculous, I almost expected to see a cigarette stand by the end of the third mile. If the company really wanted to make a difference, they could have put all of this “juice” money into the charity pot too, or at least that was what I thought. I finished my 5-mile walk as quickly as I could, and fled the scene after submitting my form and my earnings. But wait, the story doesn’t end here. About a month later, a colleague of mine shared with me the fact that some of the trees that had been planted around the school two years ago, in what was then perceived to be a blessing to the school, were now threatening to bring the school crumbling down. The roots of these trees had found their way into the foundation of the school building, a building that the company had nothing to do with erecting in the first place. I was so dumbfounded, all I could manage was a, “Good job.” I didn’t even bother to ask what “we” were doing about it, lest it result in another horror story sporting a clown mask.

I’m proud to be a slacktivist. No, not because almost every one of these attempted good deeds had resulted in failure. Not even because I had had enough of trying to help, only to be thwarted by my and other people’s own “good intentions” over and over again. I discovered that there is something fundamentally wrong with activism and it had to do with accepting the cause at face value. Take any scheme aimed at poverty eradication, for example. Or better yet, let’s look at famine relief programs, where we see images of starving people too weak to take another breath, laying helplessly on their backs with huge, bloated bellies. And then, cut to other nations around the world, dumping food grains down the drain to help regulate the price of these commodities, not to mention those that pledge aid and leave it at that. Coming back to getting rid of poverty, I still find it beyond the realm of logic and faith, in this case, how we can do with a burgeoning human population. What does that even mean? Are we thinking that elevating more and more people to an acceptable standard of life, in all its facets, will bring us to a new world? Consider all the statistics that have been published about the consumption habits of the average American, a hot topic in the last 15 years. Now, that level of impact on the World involves only a handful of people, roughly 350 million. Can you imagine if a country like India were to achieve this state of being, with its population already at more than one billion? To help you picture it, remember that the US is three times larger than India. How would we even begin to deal with the amount of waste generated, for example, not to mention where all the resources to sustain this standard of living would come from? And this we’re supposed to do for the entire world? Call me pessimistic, but that’s impossible! You're telling me the "cracks" aren't already showing? Riiight. Yet, year after year, someone else is championing the cause, tagging it along with either religion or politics, or even fantastic notions of a society where there will be no wasteful use of resources and all cars will fly. Rethink your activism. Do you go out and pick up a sign for fun, or because you believe, or because you think you believe? Try and pay attention to the fact that there should be a positive correlation between the amount of effort you put in, and the result you achieve. I’ve seen anti-smoking campaigns a plenty, and participated in rallies, only to sneak away for a smoke every five minutes. But more and more kids are smoking these days. How does that happen? And, by extension, because smoking is "addictive" how is this not going to mean a larger group of people smoking in the future? While you try and figure that one out, allow me to sit here and try and set up a foundation for the “Slacktivist of the Year” Award. Who knows, it may turn out to be time well spent, especially if I can find a sponsor, and a bunch of people to help me promote it. ;)

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