This post was originally published in The Platform
I dislike the label ‘activist’, armchair or otherwise. To be defined as an activist is to be defined by the inactivity of others. Armchair activism, as I see it, is a constant struggle against (to paraphrase Milton Freidman) ‘the tyranny of the status quo’; that dread inertia that prevents people at large from forming the critical mass required to propel decisive solutions to social issues that affect them all.
Armchair activism is different in nature from ‘on-the-ground’ activists who have a gamut of other responsibilities, like standing in front of tanks and bulldozers should the need arise. (Raashid Riza has an excellent post on contemporary activism, armchair activism and cynics of all forms in the light of recent events here.) Armchair activists are more specifically involved in spreading the word in the domain of public opinion – they are in the fight against ignorance, cynicism and apathy.
The goal of the armchair activist, conscious or otherwise, is to convince OTHER people of the need for altruism and moral consideration. Theirs is a sustained effort at tipping the balance of this inertia, at creating that critical mass. Social media has contributed to a phenomenal rise in armchair activism. The ability to influence public opinion is now at our very fingertips.
But armchair activists are rendered outcasts in an environment still dominated by the primary tyrannical force, materialism. Materialism breeds selfishness, and selfishness is protected by cynicism. Cynicism denies responsibility for the actions of others, even individuals the cynics themselves have elected into power. Cynics deny that one can make a difference, but know that many can. However they doubt that enough will overcome their own cynicism in order to join together convincingly, thus building a self fulfilling philosophy that makes selfishness always comfortably right.
This is played out in social networks, both real and virtual, everyday. People cannot understand why other people get all up in arms about things that happen thousands of miles away. These others can’t understand how some can idly sit by and look at pictures of kittens when not only kittens but children are being slaughtered indiscriminately ONLY a few thousand miles away. Vocal cynics resent being reminded of the latter. And say so. Scoffing at idealists is a popular pastime when idealists get active.
And then there is the silent majority, too caught up with its own affairs to even bother with vocalising its cynicism. To all of them, the ‘voice of the people’ is a myth. Or if it exists, it only exists in order to elect the next American Idol, or president.
This disillusionment with the power of the ‘voice of the people’ is the primary source of conscious or unconscious ire for the armchair activist. Forever trying to influence and educate, shock and engage the public at large, armchair activists capitalise on critical events they see as having the ability to finally tip the majority in their favor. These are the times when they get really active, because to them it is all about critical mass.
And they help. Public outrage in the wake of Israel’s illegal Operation Pillar of Cloud helped accelerate the ceasefire agreement; public outrage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked investigations debating BP’s drilling practices, the risks of oil spills and key environmental issues in general. But have they done enough? I’d say no. The underlying causes of these issues remain, ready to burst forth in some new form of violence in the future. Change more radical than this would need to happen for a permanent solution, the kind of solutions that all activists, everywhere, ardently hope for.
But, unfortunate as it may be, this kind of critical mass manifests only when a major crisis is imminent. Only when the disease spreads to the very foundations of the materialism that breeds the cynicism, that breeds the apathy of public opinion, will the majority awaken from its inertia. But when this does happen, to paraphrase Friedman again, their actions will depend on the ideas that are ‘lying around’, the discourses, social infrastructure, alternative policies and theories of change that have been kept alive by activists of all kinds, waiting until the ‘impossible’ becomes the ‘inevitable’.
This is probably why activism and armchair activism appear futile in the short term and only superficially effective in the medium term. For long lasting change to occur, whatever that may mean, the efforts of activists are not enough. It takes the efforts of non-activists as well, in the process converting everyone into someone who acts, removing the need to define what an ‘activist’ is altogether.