The Complications of Performative Activism

By: Jordan Martin

 I am sure that many of you remember what happened to your social media feeds shortly after the tragic death of George Floyd. When the media picked up the shocking video of Chauvin killing Floyd, it put heavy attention onto the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, everyone was posting about it. Infographics, art memorials, and even graphic imagery of the murder were all over our feeds. The Black Lives Matter movement only heated up with other events such as the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and many more until a new issue gained more social media traction leaving behind many unsolved issues that had been brought up during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a well known example of a time when performative activism was everywhere. Performative activism is acting in support of some cause or movement, but for the purpose of getting praise, or fitting in, or ego-protection. This may include hashtags, reposting art for a given issue, or retweeting. Typically, a large and distressing event will inspire many to start posting about a specific issue. The event or issue is picked up quicker and is more widespread if there is camera evidence of it. This process is not limited to BLM. It has also made its way through Asian hate, Israel vs Palestine conflict, #MeToo, Muslim camps in China, and more. 

     This, unfortunately, can reduce serious social and political issues that have devastating effects on real people to a trend cycle. Performative activism has created an environment where people just half-heartedly post about a serious issue sometimes for the sole purpose of protecting themselves from criticism or to look better to other people. The truth is, everything we do on social media is performative. We post on social media in order to mold other people’s perception of who we are, so posting about politics or social issues on social media is no different. Many performative activists only act in support of a movement when it is convenient for them or will earn them social acceptance. According to Forbes, over 28 million people posted a black square with the caption #blackouttuesday in response to the killing of George Floyd. While I recognize that social media can be a useful place to spread information, organize protests, create petitions, and more, it also can make the attention on these issues only last as long as our short online attention spans. It is also true that performative activism has only worsened the issue of untrue or slanted information spreading rapidly. When thousands of people who are not well informed on issues are posting about those issues, more people who are not well informed see that information, internalize it, pass it on, and perpetuate it. 

      You may be wondering why so many people who are uneducated or possibly uninterested in a topic would post about it or involve themselves in it. Well, when these issues are so heavily trending or talked about, many feel pressure to outwardly support the cause in fear of being called out for being ignorant, complicit, or just a bad person. It is also true that some post about the issues just to fit in with everyone else. People want to feel that they are liked and that they belong–like they’re doing something in this life, and performative activism has become a way for people to shed their own guilt surrounding the cause. It is also true that when so many people are only posting or speaking about an issue to be performative, it can make people view the issue as less important and more of a trend. Many will point to the performative activists surrounding the cause to claim that the whole issue is just a bunch of virtue signalers making things up. Again, posting support for causes you care about on social media is not a bad thing. It only becomes harmful when you are not actually educated or open to discussion from others. 

     I don’t think it’s right to send hate to people who participate in performative activism. The pressure to participate can be overwhelming, and it’s not right to expect every single person to be deeply invested and fully educated on every topic. It is unrealistic and negatively affects the quality of activism. There are so many problems in this world, and so many causes to be researched and supported. It’s simply not possible to expect most people to be educated enough on all of these topics to be true authentic activists for every single thing. 

     So, what is the difference between performative and useful activism? Genuine activism aims to amplify voices and create conversation. If a person is trying to make a difference, it is essential that they speak up in real-life situations–especially when it concerns social issues. Calling people out in real life for their actions is immensely important to see change and growth in a community or society. It is not enough to just say that you support the lgbtq+ community; you have to also stick up for the people in your life affected by homophobia, transphobia, etc. It is not enough to say you support gender equality; you have to also speak up when you see misogyny around you. Performative activism definitely can come from a caring place. Acts of performative activism can be a way to spread awareness, but the problem is when that effort to make change ends on social media. 

     Ultimately, it comes down to the effort made. Performative activism may feel difficult to escape, or it may feel difficult to know how to make a real impact on the world around you. The truth is, anyone who wants to be an activist can be one even if it’s small things like calling out problematic behavior when you see it or donating $5 to a cause you care about. Additionally, we as a society need to stop expecting everyday, average people to throw their whole energy into every tragedy or issue going on in our world. This is not an issue that will be solved overnight, but I personally have noticed less people participating in performative activism leaving behind only those who were willing to put extra energy into the causes they cared most about. I think that our society is capable of more growth and self-checking than some of us give it credit for. It is time for us to look at our own mistakes and shortcomings, and make the effort to be better in the future for the benefit of our world.

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