by Aubrie Blevins
WRIT 1122: Rhetoric and Academic Writing | Professor Angela Sowa
Public discourse has historically been a dynamic arena of social change. It has the power to define social norms as well as modify nationwide consensus. If enough audience members are reached, this form of speech has the potential to dramatically change the direction of a society. In recent years, activist groups have increasingly relied on the Internet as a means to efficiently deliver their respective texts to large, previously untapped sources of social capital. Audience members can now be delivered their respective exigencies with just the click of a button. In light of this recent advancement in communication, many organizations encourage their members to “tweet” and “like” online posts, to wear certain colors representing a cause, and to share and sign online pledges with the intent of creating mass awareness.
However, with the rise in popularity of this particular form of activism, many critics have labeled this type of advocacy as “slacktivism,” combining the terms “slacker” and “activism” in reference to the minimal amount of individual effort involved. Most slacktivism campaigns rarely require a significant financial commitment, much less any muscle movement. Yet these small acts do give satisfaction to the person who clicked “like” on Facebook or bought a t-shirt online; participants feel real gratification in “participating” in these causes. A few slacktivist campaigns have even given organizations the financial capital needed in order to flourish and instill real-world change through research and humanitarian missions. In an age where we are more connected than ever before, we must question the mindset that this form of advocacy doesn’t result in social change at all. The rhetorical strategies of activism are changing as communication has evolved with the advent of the Internet. Slacktivism is actively defining normative standards prevalent in American culture while simultaneously providing many organizations with the financial capital they need to flourish. The duality of these two functions in society has very different—and often opposing—rhetorical implications. By shifting the power relations between marginalized groups with non-marginalized groups in our society, slacktivism often emphasizes not only whom a society is willing to fight for, but the values a society is willing to defend.
According to Geoffrey Mittelman, writing for social justice news website HuffPost Impact, we unconsciously weigh certain elements in order to determine how involved in a cause we will be. The first is “internal consistency,” or the fact that we want our self-concept to relate to our actions. The second is “moral balancing,” which suggests our actions tend to hover over a moral setpoint. If we surpass our moral setpoint by engaging in “good” deeds, then we feel we can engage in other, more self-interested behaviors. However, if we fall below our moral setpoint, we feel obligated to compensate by doing “good” deeds. Incidentally, these two concepts of moral balancing and internal consistency conflict with one another. We want to feel like good people through our actions, yet through the least action possible. For example, consider the narrative of churchgoers who donate thousands of dollars per year to their church, yet never attend services. This is a common, but quite real, cliché. In the minds of the churchgoers, the money replaces their physical presence in the church. According to recent research by Gert Cornelissen, as described in the journal Psychological Science, people with an “outcome-based mindset are attending to their moral self-image, or the disparity between the self they perceive and the self they aspire to be.” This research suggests that, in the example of church donations, the substitution of physical presence by monetary means benefits the church. The church is supported by the financial capital of those who don’t want to put in the effort to involve themselves physically, yet still feel they have a stake in contributing to the organization by attending to the two psychological factors of moral balancing and internal consistency.
This internal conflict doesn’t mean that we are all destined to be slacktivists. Often, those who participate in traditional activist groups do so because their identity is deeply rooted in their cause. Participating in activism strongly relates to an identity. Therefore, participants in more traditional activism have a much larger stake in participating than other groups do: it makes sense that an upper-class, white, cisgender male would not relate to a social cause in the same way as a queer, middle-class person of color would.
However, those who do not directly identify with a particular cause often do care. This sympathy has significant potential. Involved outsiders still share a small stake in helping support these traditional organizations through the interaction of shared values and the opportunity to engage in activities that engage the participants’ inherent moral balancing and internal consistency. The most successful organizations acknowledge that their constituents who don’t have direct stakeholdership through their identity still have the potential to be powerful modes of change. Organizations thus often engage in a symbiotic relationship between participants and the organization, using this framework to essentially sell units of perceived morality in exchange for profit.
Again, engaging the sympathies of non-marginalized groups can be just as powerful as having direct identity stakeholdership within a marginalized identity. Less than 0.009% of the population has ALS and are not affected by ableism in this particular way, yet The “Ice Bucket Challenge” was one of the most notable online slacktivist campaigns known to date. The rules were as follows: one must videotape themselves dumping ice water on oneself and challenge others to do the same. However, if one chooses not make a video, a $5 to $100 donation to an ALS research program is mandated, depending on the variation of rules. Not surprisingly, the challenge was met with criticism by many traditional activist organizations. It is inherently self-advertising (many websites even had competitions for the “Sexiest Ice Bucket Challenges”), and the act itself provides no greater understanding of ALS. The structure of the challenge actually discourages further self-education by rewarding this self-advertisement through “likes“ and the potential for Internet fame. However, in just a few months’ time, this campaign raised over 100 million dollars in funds directly towards ALS research. In appealing to the universal need for reassurance that one is a “good” person, this particular campaign reaped the benefits of people’s need for their identities to relate to their actions through internal consistency. Through mass self-advertising, individuals were able to show the world (and themselves) that they were, indeed, the good people they believed themselves to be.
The Ice Bucket Challenge got another thing right: effort. According to two studies of compliance by Jonathan Freedman and Scott C. Fraser in 1966 and by Jerry Burger in 1999, there is a positive relationship between the amount of effort initially spent supporting a cause and the amount of support the cause will have in the future. For example, if you attend a marathon race to promote awareness of a disease, you are more likely to continue to participate in events with that organization in the future when prompted. In retrospect, it takes a lot of effort to orchestrate an Ice Bucket Challenge video, much more than simply clicking a “like” button and never thinking about the same topic again. Additionally, the Ice Bucket Challenge soon became a competition for whose video was the craziest, resulting in even more initial effort invested. This effort, in the long run, is likely what led to this campaign’s massive profit, as participants continued to take part in other events of ALS.
Similarly, despite the fact that only biological males are able to contract this particular disease and identify with this particular cause, the Live-Strong campaign gained massive universal support upon its insurgence. To date, the foundation has raised approximately half a billion dollars to support and education for those who have been newly diagnosed with cancer. Of those funds, 100 million dollars came simply from the sale of LiveStrong bracelets. This campaign was structured differently than the Ice Bucket Challenge, stimulating the subconscious volition to do “enough” good deeds, or attend moral balancing, rather than appeal to the egos of the audience. The “token object,” or the bracelets, were tangible, quantifiable units that went toward people’s allowance of good deeds.
Campaigns such as LiveStrong that combine ubiquity with minimal effort have the potential to be extremely successful. In a study conducted by Kirk Kristofferson, Katherine White, and John Peloza and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, subjects were offered token objects to show support for a cause. Out of the three groups, those who did not take the token object at all donated the least amount of money when asked later on. This trend suggests that these token objects continue to stimulate internal consistency as time goes on by also integrating moral balancing. Participants view token objects as a symbol of commitment to a cause and feel compelled to continue to donate in order to continue to feel like “good” people. The object itself, perhaps, presents a moral dilemma that participants feel obligated to rectify. Cognitive dissonance occurs when participants see the bracelet and are reminded of their commitment to a cause. When they view the bracelet, participants are forced to analyze their balance of “good” actions and self-indulging actions. Therefore, rectifying that discomfort can be easily attended to by donating money by purchasing more token objects. In fact, Kristofferson, White, and Peloza show that when the subsequent action [of donation] is closely related to the [initial] act of slacktivism, subjects were motivated to remain consistent. This structure, selling moral balance and stimulation of internal consistency later on, is the reason many of these token-centered campaigns are so successful. They powerfully integrate both strategies in an efficient and low-risk way that crosses geographic, ethnic, and gendered boundaries through simple and inexpensive means.
Slacktivist campaigns have clearly been memorable, and quite successful if we measure success solely by financial gain. However, basing success on monetary gain has created a few more serious problems. Through this strategy of selling individual units of self-gratification to as wide of an audience as possible, the time in which a campaign is effective (both financially and socially) is significantly reduced. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the average person donates 3-5% of their adjusted gross income to charity at any point in time. This finding suggests that as people take on a new charity, they will very likely give up an old one. Slacktivism has made this turnover easier than ever. In fact, according to a 2013 study at Michigan State University by Lee and Hsieh, slacktivist participants often abandoned a cause if it was not consistent with the original act of slacktivism. This research suggests that there is a high risk of turnover associated with asking participants to do something even marginally different than what an original act of slacktivism consisted of. Therefore, as one slacktivist cause gains popularity, another cause will lose attention and its political force can be cut short quickly.
Modern charity groups have now begun to compete for how “bad” a problem is through the strategy of making a quick sale to as many people as possible, rather than employing a holistic approach. Instead of working to provide long-term benefits to a specific identity, modern activism has put an audience that does not directly identify with a cause at the forefront. Activism as a whole has greatly changed. Whereas it was once a process of steady, consistent growth with the intention of real-world impact, modern activism now prioritizes the rapid earning of profit by appealing to a large but unrelated group of people. Therefore, the charity industry is progressively transforming into a traditional market for goods and services rather than a political entity. As charity groups increasingly employ this strategy as their main source of income, the number of people whom charity significantly and more seriously benefits, has shrunk the symbolic, rhetorical value of activism itself.
The commoditization of activism by the emphasis on amassing generalized popularity has inadvertently resulted in narratives that place the group allegedly being helped at the expense of financial gain. One of the worst offenders continues to be breast cancer awareness campaigns. In order to resolve the dilemma of men’s lack of identification with this particular issue, campaigns often appeal to gendered stereotyping in order to gain popularity with a more universal audience. Often, these campaigns explicitly objectify the female body in order to gain popularity with heterosexual, cisgender males. In particular, the “Save the Ta-Tas” Breast Cancer Awareness campaign sells a variety of t-shirts, displaying slogans such as “Save a life, grope your wife” and “I love big Ta-Tas,” featuring hearts where the areola would be when worn. Photoshoots for this campaign do not feature a single cancer survivor; instead, they feature a cast of supermodels in lingerie. The focus on sexuality and not on the actual effects of cancer on the entire body results in the message that breast cancer is simply a loss of breasts. As our society has defined breasts as a definition of womanhood, this cancer results in a loss of womanhood and, therefore, a loss of sexuality. This campaign, then, explicitly prioritizes male sexuality over the life of a person. While these campaigns are quite popular, as they have gained hundreds of millions of dollars, they not only encourage participants to turn a blind eye to the reality of breast cancer but also explicitly to marginalize women. It is true that this particular campaign has financed scientific research into a cure for cancer, but it also sends the social message that the life of a woman is only valuable in terms of men’s desires, or for the perceived quality of a woman’s body parts.
This example is just one of many. Slacktivist campaigns’ tendency to target a more generalized audience has effectively subverted the power balance between those who are being helped and those who are doing the helping. Those who have no identity stakeholdership are given the power of choosing whom and what is fought for, receiving the privilege of deciding all of the logistics for social change. Often, only those causes that cater to the feelings of the socially privileged majority gain significant public support, which presents a risk of more contentious issues never being addressed. As it has recently become the main mode of activism, slacktivism’s tendency to reward unrelated behaviors to an unrelated set of people is effectively maintaining the status quo.
The definition of activism is changing. The intentions of slacktivist campaigns, such as the Ice Bucket challenge, LiveStrong, and even “Save the Ta-Tas,” are often genuine. But in the long run, as slacktivism becomes increasingly popular, marginalized groups are inadvertently put at the expense of mainstream popularity. This trend has given those who have no personal experience with an issue the power of deciding the political movement of a campaign. Allies can be beneficial. However, we must be aware that slacktivism’s appeal to non-marginalized allies effectively takes away the agency of those whose identity is truly rooted in a cause, and arguably, those who need activism the most.
Featured Image © slgckgc | Flickr.com
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
Coming from a rural area of northern Idaho, inclusive excellence has always been an interest of mine. This piece was one of my first college essays, and I wrote it as I was becoming more involved with inclusive excellence on campus, but also when slacktivist campaigns really started gaining mainstream popularity. I realized that there was a huge dissonance between the two strategies—the traditional forms of activism that inclusive excellence promotes and campaigns such as the ice-bucket challenge. Therefore, I sought to resolve this issue by writing this piece.
I think of this essay as union of two essays, informed by writing instruction and self-education on social justice. The two essays that comprise this piece were assignments for my WRIT 1122 class. They were to be about the same issue but take opposing stances, demonstrating that one can manipulate the same information to make completely different points. Interestingly enough, the piece I didn’t agree with (the essay that argued in defense of slacktivism) was the one that was chosen to be in this publication.
In short, I didn’t want to have just that side of the argument represent me as a writer. I consider the other essay, which argues against slacktivism, to be the other half of this piece. It acknowledges that arguments for slacktivism often ignore the racist, classist, and sexist standards prevalent in American culture, which in turn, as you will read, bears significant societal effects.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aubrie Blevins is a second-year student from Moscow, Idaho. She’s studying biology at DU, and her interests include traveling and learning new languages. She notes that despite the fact that she’s a dedicated Italian minor, she’s unable to roll her r’s no matter how hard she tries!
Association for Psychological Science. “Do-gooder or Ne’er-do-well? Behavioral Science Explains Patterns of Moral Behavior.” APS: Association for Psychological Science. Association for Psychological Science, 7 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Bower, Bruce. “Token Gestures.” Science News 186.1 (2014): 22–26. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Burger, Jerry. “The Foot-in-the-Door Compliance Procedure: A Multiple-Process Analysis and Review.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 3.4 (1999): 303–25. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Essig, Kate. “Activism Or Slacktivism? How Social Media Hurts And Helps Student Activism.” St. Louis Public Radio. University of Missouri-St. Louis, 2 Jan. 2014. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.
Freedman, Jonathan, and Scott C. Fraser “Compliance Without Pressure.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4.2 (1966): 195–202. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Gladwell, Malcom. “Small Change.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 4 Oct. 2010. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.
Kristofferson, Kirk, Katherine White, and John Peloza “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research 40.6 (2014): 1149–166. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Mittelman, Geoffrey A. “Can Slacktivism Lead to Activism?” HuffPost Impact. The Huffington Post Inc., 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Lee, Yu-Hao, and Gary Hsieh. “Does Slacktivism Hurt Activism?: The Effects of Moral Balancing and Consistency in Online Activism.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2013): 811–20. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Rovell, Darren. “In Numbers: Lance Armstrong Foundation.” Espn.go.com. ESPN, 24 Aug. 012. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.