Just say no to performative activism

In coming years, we’re going to be having a lot of conversations about performative versus substantive activism and solidarity work. These are important conversations to be having, because we need to make sure that our work provides valid, useful, actionable contributions to the world — whether or not it makes us feel good. That requires, for some, rethinking what ‘activism’ looks like.

The last few years have really enabled what I call performative or armchair activism — nice gestures that are ultimately empty, because they are backed by no actions whatsoever. Wearing a safety pin. Passing a resolution but not following up with legislation. Joining a hashtag but not taking the step to turn it into a movement or support the movement that you are trying to join. I’m not going to go on, but you get the point. It’s flashy, it’s public, you can brand yourself as ‘doing something,’ but it doesn’t necessarily result in substantive change.

The thing about performative activism is that in progressive circles, where there’s a lot of pressure to ‘do something’ and show someone how progressive you are, it’s a fantastic way to tag yourself. You personally are doing something to change the world! It’s fast. It feels good. You can tell people about all the great stuff you’re doing, even if you’re not really doing anything at all. It doesn’t cost you to change your Twitter icon or put a link from The Nation on your Facebook page, but it’s an act of performance.

The thing about substantive activism and ally work is that it is work. And one of the most complex things about it is that it does not necessarily yield neat, clean results that you can point to. The woman who decides she is going to write her legislators about an issue that matters to her every single week until they do something is engaging in activism, but it’s not something she can readily turn into performance, any more than the works of other people who engage in scores of acts of resistance large and small every day, understanding that you can’t make change in a day.

I often see this illustrated at city council meetings, where people flounce in out of nowhere after all the work is done to make grand futile gestures because they couldn’t be arsed to show up to the committee and council meetings where this issue was discussed, or to personally contact the officials involved to participate in the process. They want the quick hit, the easy solution, so they can say ‘look, I did a thing!’ Sometimes it is as easy as doing a single, actionable thing. Usually? It’s not. It’s hard, thankless, boring work, and this is how it goes.

Assertive, powerful, amazing activism is often totally unsung because you can’t point to a single specific moment or action that created change. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. In fact, it’s more worth it, because it involves working in solidarity with people to build a collective movement.

Let’s take a concrete example.

As you undoubtedly know, much is being made of the threat to create a ‘Muslim registry’ in the United States, forcing all Muslims, citizens and resident immigrants alike, to register with the government. This, we are being told, is necessary for public safety, though it’s very clearly designed to gather a watchlist and a shortcut document in the event the government decides to start deporting and/or incarcerating Muslims. This is a human rights violation and a civil rights one and it is repulsive.

The ground level fight on this starts with contacting legislators and asking them to oppose any attempts at such a watchlist. Federal legislators are where the real power lies here, though you can ask state legislatures to pass resolutions rejecting such lists, or to look into legal options for making it possible for the state to refuse to comply. Need a case study? The California TRUST Act makes it unlawful for California law enforcement agencies to cooperate with immigration detainers and gather information on undocumented immigrants, save in cases where they have committed actual crimes and when there is a court order to hold someone. This means that, for example, an undocumented rape victim can approach an agency to report without fear of being punished for her immigration status.

Okay, but despite your best efforts, it passes, and your state intends to comply with the process used for gathering and updating records.

A lot of performative activists have already proudly announced that they will sign up for the registry in an ‘I am Spartacus’ move designed to flood it with so much bad data that it is functionally useless. This is a grand gesture that will undoubtedly result in delightful receipts to post on Instagram with a hashtag to demonstrate what a great #activist you are.

Except that this not actually a good idea, and in fact, it’s something that Muslims have strongly urged people not to do. Registering for the list validates it and creates a framework for compliance. Not registering, and supporting Muslims who refuse to register, is much better solidarity work, say Muslims, who are the ones actually affected by this issue. They’re the ones that non-Muslims should be listening to. And yeah, you don’t get a quick shot of feel good sentiments by not signing up for a thing, but what you do get is more meaningful activism with a lasting impact.

It’s tempting to give in to performative activism — I am by no means exempt. But in the coming years, we really need to focus on substance, and that means being willing to settle down and do prolonged hard work, and being willing to back that from behind the scenes, even if you’re not formally recognised or given prizes for participation. It also means, as always, listening to the people whom you claim you want to help, because they will tell you what they need. If you’re not sure where and how to listen, start by searching the internet, because ‘how to help [group]’ can yield a lot of useful results.

Image: On the Phone, Ahmed Sagarwala, Flickr