In Defense Of Armchair Activism

If you logged into Facebook at any point last week, you might have noticed that a couple of new colors were starting to seep into the site’s standard blue-and-white scheme. Well, maybe “noticed” is a bit of an understatement. The red and pink of those equals signs were so intense they seemed to glow, and when half of your friends’ profile pictures are sporting them, it’s like a second Valentine’s Day. As soon as I figured out that the symbol meant support for marriage equality, I changed my own picture as well. The entire process probably took less than 20 seconds, and involved me asking myself one question: Do I support the right of same-sex couples to marry? The rest was just clicking. Quick and easy.

Too easy, according to some. Changing your profile picture on Facebook, they argue, has no connection to those fighting for marriage rights now arguing their case before the justices of the Supreme Court and has no effect on whether the cause you claim to support actually succeeds. In fact, by default, anything you can do while sitting on your butt browsing Facebook can’t be real activism. Real activism means standing outside with a sign yelling at passersby and passing out buttons. The equals-sign people are just posers who want the warm, fuzzy feeling of being validated as a Good Person without doing anything significant to earn the title. They’re superficial, ignorant, sheeplike. They’re lazy.

I will respond to this charge here by stating that I am guilty. I’m a lazy person. You’re lazy, too. Everyone is, if they can afford to be. And this is why armchair activism of the type exemplified by the equals-sign campaign is so important. It’s so easy that even a lazy person can do it, which means that everyone can.

In real life, i.e. not Pomona College life, many people have responsibilities that prevent them from being able to participate in protests and rallies. Many people do not even have the time and energy to make a meaningful commitment to one worthy cause, let alone the countless others that are just as deserving of support. Many people live in places that are not Claremont, places where social activism is not part of the fabric of everyday experience, where expressing your support for something like marriage rights won’t earn you any high-fives or free hugs. Many people are ignorant, and this is a truth to be dealt with, not a crime to be punished. For such people, showing a small token of support for marriage equality isn’t an alternative to real activism but an alternative to doing nothing.

And if you take a look at what actually happens when you participate in such armchair activism—by, say, changing your Facebook profile picture to an equals sign—you’ll see that it’s actually quite a bit more than nothing. First, you publicly identify yourself as a member of a certain in-group, in this case the supporters of marriage equality. You now psychologically associate yourself with the other members of your in-group, just as you might with the other members of your family, sports team, race, or nation, and distance yourself from members of out-groups. You are more likely to view your fellow supporters favorably and more likely to be influenced by their opinions.

Second, you spread word of your identification to the members of another of your in-groups—your Facebook friends. These are the people whose opinions you are most likely to sway, and who are most likely to identify with you. It is much harder for a person to take a strong stance against marriage equality when they are aware that many of their friends and acquaintances support it, since to do so, they would have to actively distance themselves from that particular group. Third, you create and store a memory of the event. You have thought about marriage rights just a little bit more than you normally would and made it just a little bit more likely that you will think about it again. And until you change your picture again, that memory is reinforced every time you check Facebook.

Outwardly, none of these small changes might seem to have any meaningful effect. And by themselves, they probably don’t. I think it is true to say that one tiny statement of support, on its own, does very little to advance the greater cause. But it is also true to say that a single drop of water does not make a thunderstorm, and yet when the sky darkens, no one can deny that the rain is coming. So let’s not scorn the armchair activists and their lazy contributions. By slowly changing their own opinions and those of others, they are laying the groundwork for a future in which those opinions will no longer need to be fought for.