Whether it’s a throwaway statement about how bad climate change is, or a one-off Instagram story promoting a petition, most people have probably been guilty of performative activism at one point.
The term ‘performative activism’ – also known to as ‘slacktivism’ – refers to any form of activism done solely for one’s social appearance, rather than actually raising awareness for a cause; hence it being ‘performative’. Over the past twenty years or so, we as a society have made being ‘woke’ a trend, which in turn, has generated both positive and negative effects.
This year, in particular, has seen an increase in the term’s popularity following the murder of George Floyd in May. With over 21 million Instagram users posting a black square on 2nd June 2020 with the hashtag #blackouttuesday in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement, some may have used the day as a cop-out for legitimate action. This is not to say that the intention of the hashtag was not a valuable one; it certainly raised awareness for the movement and it was a powerful message to see entire Instagram feeds dedicated to it. Yet many people may have believed posting a black square was sufficient enough in the fight against racism, failing to contribute to long-term developments.
‘But why is that bad?’ some may ask. If the movement gained awareness surely it was a good thing, right? Well, not quite.
Ultimately performative activism obscures the reality of a cause. For example, if all 21 million Instagram users signed the Justice for George Floyd petition in June when posting their black squares, the petition would have reached its goal months ago. It is therefore hard to believe that all users were sincere in advocating for change. The conversation has now shifted away from these still-prominent issues as a result of the movement (in some ways) turning into a social trend.
Around this time, there was also an increase in peer pressure to seem as though everyone was “doing their part”. Naturally, no one wants to present themselves as a racist/sexist/transphobic (whatever it might be), yet peer pressuring to encourage activism is not always the best idea. With posts stating "all your friends can see you not standing up for [x] cause” circulating on social media, performative activism is only encouraged.
It is important to remember that we cannot see what goes on behind one’s social media. Perhaps someone is signing every petition they can and donating to the appropriate causes despite not broadcasting it online. Likewise, others sharing regular resources and posing at a protest may not actively be supporting a movement at its core. We just don’t know.
The only thing we do know is what we do ourselves. Educating ourselves on the reality of society, signing petitions, having difficult conversations with family and friends, and donating wherever possible is amongst the best ways to bring about change for a cause that needs it.
Performative activism essentially only helps the individual by painting themselves in a better, more culturally-aware, light. So let’s not turn well-intended movements into a social trend. Raising awareness is great, but more is needed to guarantee that change ultimately ensues.