BY SARAH WASHINGTON ’19
As tensions rise both on and off campus due to President Donald Trump’s questionable policies and Twitter outbursts, the call for more people to engage in activism has grown louder. However, tensions exist even within groups fighting for the same rights. Some are frustrated by the perceived lack of effort from some activists, or “armchair activists” as they have been called.
Urban Dictionary defines an “armchair activist” as “one who sits in their armchair or desk chair and blogs or posts about activists issues on Facebook without ever really doing anything about said issues or exercising any form of activism
as it would require that person to actually leave the armchair.” This colloquial term is also used interchangeably with the term “slacktivist.” Both terms imply that caring about social issues while not physically doing anything concrete to fix those issues is a sign of laziness, or that “slacktivists” only care about these is- sues in order to gain social recognition.
However, these blanket assumptions about people who may not be as physically involved as other activists are ableist, because they ignore the fact that many forms of activism are inaccessible to some people. They imply that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to be an activist, which alienates portions of the activist community as others take on the roles of gatekeepers. In order for activism to truly work, it needs to be a unified effort, and any effort spent policing others’ perceived effort is a waste of precious time.
My personal experience when it comes to experiencing ableism in activist circles has to do with my anxiety. As a person who has anxiety, specifically social anxiety, doing anything with big groups of strangers is a complete nightmare. Even if I am doing something I enjoy, I would rather do it with close friends or alone. Large protests are incredibly difficult for me, so I very rarely participate in large protests because of this anxiety. Similarly, I struggle to talk to strangers on the phone, so calling my representatives usually takes up a lot of energy when I am able to call them. Most of my activism occurs online, where I am able to blog about my ideas, donate to organizations when I have the money or have text-based conversations with other activists.
To people who don’t see the full extent of my activism, I might be called an “armchair activist.” But am I, really? I don’t involve myself in activism for any popularity points. I participate in activism so that everyone — including myself — can have a better future, and to draw attention to current social issues.
My story certainly isn’t unique. There are people out there who occasionally post about equal rights on Facebook in order to seem hip or political without truly caring about the issues. Yet, lumping those people with others who may truly care about these issues, and who may be participating to the best of their ability, is ableist.
It’s impossible to tell who’s who, so by declaring someone an “armchair activist” it is making a moral judgement about someone else’s perceived lack of effort. The keyword here is “perceived.” For me, making a phone call to my representatives is a lot of work. To someone without social anxiety, it is just a simple task.
Just because I am not able to reach the standards of an activist without a mental illness does not make me lazy, nor does it mean that I somehow care less about activism. My activism just takes on different forms that may not be as visible as large protests.
In my opinion, protests and other physical forms of activism are the most efficient and most visible. Look at the Women’s March that occurred only a few weeks ago; it was a widely visible, worldwide movement. However, as Cynthia Gonzalez ’19 points out, “protesting is not everything. There are tons of ways that you can support others.” Protesting isn’t everything.
One of the criticisms of the Women’s March was that the vast majority of participants were white women, many of whom most likely did not participate in other protests, such as those organized by the Black Lives Matter movement, and perhaps some of whom even voted for Donald Trump. Is this phenomenon really any different than the concept of “slacktivists,” who supposedly only involve themselves in issues in order to be seen by others?
There are various ways to be involved in activism. These include, but are not limited to, creating art, blogging, calling representatives and donating to charity. We really shouldn’t hold public protests as the supreme form of activism when they are inaccessible to some people due to mental illness, physical disability or financial accessibility. Nor should we minimize the efforts of people who participate in activist work in less visible ways. Not everyone can be on the frontlines at all times. Until protests are more accessible to everyone, we shouldn’t expect all activists to be able to participate in them or pass judgements upon those who cannot. Instead, we should support one another in our activism, participating as fully as we can, according to our own ability.