What “Free the Nipple” and Free the Children Have in Common
I’m not here to hate on us millennials. I think we get enough of that in passive-aggressive Wall Street Journal-type articles that lament our “entitlement complexes” invading the workforce. I don’t believe this — I believe we care, deeply. We care, not just about finding a career we’re passionate about, but involving ourselves in relevant issues and doing more to alleviate the social ills in this world. The problem is not that we’re lazy or careless – it’s that we just can’t decide which problems to focus on.
I blame slacktivism. This somewhat new cultural phenomenon refers to the half-hearted participation in a cause, via the Internet and social media, that requires very little commitment or exposure to the cause. This could be sharing that random Facebook post about the Bangladesh factory collapse, or taking two minutes to sign an online petition asking for all the whales to be freed from SeaWorld. In these interactions, you’re not exactly an activist, since you most likely haven’t attended a rally or volunteered your time. But you are showcasing some mild interest and passion for a cause, and unfortunately, that might make you a slacktivist.
There is no doubt that the immense popularity of social media has contributed to slacktivism, and it does not just apply to young people. However, as a student, I’m choosing to focus on our generation because I think we’ve got a lot going on right now. The issues that are constantly trending on all social media platforms range from vegan anti-fur campaigns, to “Free the Nipple”, to “Black Lives Matter”. Slacktivism makes it seem easy for us to feel like we’re addressing all the problems, all at once. But with click after click through Facebook articles and Instagram hashtag campaigns, what really gets dealt with? What really sparks a social movement that will last, that will define our generation?
The truth is, our parents and grandparents had Big Things. They had massive movements, rallies, and protests that profoundly changed the world and formed their collective identity. Obviously, they lived through times of intense and rapid change, but there are distinct acts recognizable to everyone: ending slavery and segregation, women gaining the right to vote, the Cold War and the fight for democracy. Information couldn’t travel at the same speed as it does now; to rally a group, people had to be willing to commit themselves and everything they stood for. They picked something, and they stuck with it. And, let’s be honest – this is what led to real, concrete change.
I’m not asking us to abandon every cause and pick just one to fight for. But I do think that in a time where information is so oversaturated, in a time where you can go to Buzzfeed and read about the Syrian refugee crisis after taking a quiz titled, “What Type of Donut Are You?,” we can’t let the truly important issues get lost or die out.
In writing about grief, author Cheryl Strayed offers an important comparison here: “We act as if all losses are equal. Every emotion felt is validated and judged to be as true as any other.” She’s right; when there is hyper-awareness of so many diverse causes, it is simply rude to suggest that one might deserve more attention or resources. But I’m going to be rude for a moment. I’m going to suggest that the Syrian refugee crisis deserves more resources and social media shares than “Free the Nipple.”
Staying true to my word, I’m not here to hate on our generation, but I will offer some tough love. Do we click “like” more times on “Free the Nipple” because it’s a truly pressing issue, or because it seems trendy for the moment? Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big supporter of feminist body autonomy and freeing the whales. But I’m worried. I’m worried that slacktivism mutes the severity of certain issues by making them all seem equally solvable. When everyone added Blackfish to their Netflix cue, SeaWorld attendees nearly dried up. Like “Free the Nipple,” it became a hot-button issue, something that greatly benefitted from the rapid-fire pace of social media. Yet every day, we cycle through articles about civil wars, or photos of emaciated children, and there is no such fervor. As disheartening as it seems, I still believe we care. We just know that those issues cannot be willed away by another share on Facebook.
So, how, if it is at all possible, do we end slacktivism? Like most millennials, I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think there is a way to eliminate it completely, but I have some ideas. How we live our lives online is inevitably different than how we live them in real-time. So if you want to #SupportEverything, then go for it. But I say, do some soul-searching to find out what you truly care about and then devote as much as you can to that in your personal life, whether it’s one thing or five things. Let’s be a little more cohesive. Let’s attend some rallies. Let’s define the truly Big Things, and go at them will full millennial force. Let’s drop the prefix, and be a little more like real Activists.
Shauna McGinn, Online Columnist
Images: Nathan Keirn