Back in March, our little consortium—which, like so many other liberal arts communities, boasts a social justice-minded community armed with basic YouTube navigation skills and a perpetual tendency toward bleeding-heart outrage—became entangled in the great overproduced mess of conflicting ideological allegiances that was “Kony 2012.” Following a brief love affair with the non-profit organization Invisible Children, the collective air of repulsion at having been duped into feeding yet another money-grubbing capitalist agenda—one promoted by a stark raving nudist, to boot—that settled o’er the campus was something to marvel at. It was in that climate of embarrassed heartbreak and redoubled ire toward those that still clung to faith in the power of rebloggery that I first heard the word “slacktivism.”
Slacktivism, insofar as I understand it, describes those little measures that overscheduled, but supposedly passionate, social-justice dabblers take to constitute their good deeds for the day, but which really do no good at all, and in some cases even adversely affect the movements for which they claim to be fighting. You hear it thrown around a lot in discussions about the pernicious influence of social media on today’s youth, which makes sense given that anyone with the wimpiest modicum of feeling one way or another can “click to show your support.” But I would argue that slacktivism exists here in Claremont in a very popular, very visible, non-virtual form.
I’m talking about those brightly colored pieces of cardstock that well-intentioned students tape to their residence hall doors, proudly proclaiming in 72-pt font, “I support queer rights,” “I support survivors” or “I stand with Workers for Justice.” As someone whose door bears the first, I can tell you honestly that I didn’t put it up because I support queer rights, though I do. I got it because all the other free-thinking, progressive people on the hallway seemed to have one and, next to theirs, my empty doorframe looked a little, well, bigoted.
Peer pressure, when it comes to social justice, is not always such a bad thing. If my friends are working passionately for the advancement of a particular cause and their interest genuinely sparks my own, then peer pressure has worked for the better. But I think that these cardstock signs are inextricably linked with a particular breed of guilt-tripping. If you don’t have a sign explicitly proclaiming your support for survivors of sexual assault, the implication is that you don’t support survivors, which is, as it should be, a pretty darn unpopular stance. Collecting the flashy neon signs has become somewhat of a fad, especially among younger students eager to fit in, and this cheapens the meaning of the statements for which they stand.
I have a similar problem with those who argue that James Franco’s pseudo-intellectualism is not really such a bad thing because it sends the message to teenage fangirls that academia is “cool.” If you didn’t think academia was cool before James Franco put on a pair of Buddy Holly glasses and wrote some bad Bret Easton Ellis fan fiction, I don’t want you on my team.
The door-sign phenomenon actually has the potential to do some real harm: it sends the message that supporting a cause or a particular group of people is easy, and that the sign itself is sufficient for doing so. I have, for instance, watched more than a handful of queer rights sign-bearers make homophobic jokes and blatantly heterosexist comments, the implication being that it’s okay for them to say those things, because didn’t you read the door?
My girlfriend—I told you I had a dog in the queer rights fight—argues that the signs serve a valuable purpose, in that they promote visibility of issues on campus and support for those issues, and I agree with her, to an extent. Walking through a residence hall for the first time, a first-year with life experiences pertinent in some general way to those statements expressed on the signs might be able to relax a little knowing that there’s so much support to be found, even if most of it is purely nominal. It is when said first-year enters a period of active crisis, however, that the gap between reality and mass-produced, pre-printed proclamation grows the widest. For who among us proudly displaying the “I support survivors” banner would be ready, or even necessarily willing, to receive a distressed survivor in a time of need? The answer to that, of course, would be trained members of Advocates for the Survivors of Sexual Assault, the group responsible for the dissemination of the signs. Perhaps their intention, with regard to a situation like the one described above, is to create a sort of Underground Railroad wherein those in need of true support come knocking at the doors of the lip-service sign-bearers, who’ll then refer them to the real experts. Unfortunately, if any of the alleged supporters, indiscriminately culled from the door-decorating masses, knows as little about what they’re supposed to stand for as do the aforementioned queer rights-championing homophobes, the system breaks down in a big way.
One normally vocal subset of the 5C activist population that’s chosen to sidestep the door sign craze altogether is that of the environmentally conscious. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the door signs, for all their other problems, are anything but sustainable. I myself, after hastily picking up a red “I support queer rights” sign on move-in day, later discarded it in favor of a blue one. But now I’m splitting hairs. I’ve got online petitions to sign.