Editorial: April 5 — Rebel with a (few) cause(s)
Things my generation likes: social justice, recycling, urban gardens, guerilla art, TED Talks, TOMS, fair but not equal, fair trade, kiva.org, human rights, animal rights, gay rights, black rights, white rights, poor rights, rich rights, college student rights, your mom’s rights.
My generation likes causes. We like to try our hand at “changing the world.” We pour our passion and energy and thought into these things and it’s great — there’s no denying that. I can’t sit here and write that I wish people would stop caring so much. Because there really are a lot of people and places that need our attention.
But I have a problem, see. I don’t know which cause to choose. Maybe you’ve felt this tension, this pressure to latch on to a cause with all of your teeth and growl at anyone who opposes you. “You’re young!” they say. “Use that energy to change the world! Sure, it’ll be hard, but at least you tried. Change your world!”
Real talk: the next person who tells me to change the world is going to be cleaning vomit off of his vegan shoes.
Honestly, how am I supposed to know which cause to support? Everyone says his or her cause is the most important. Like, everyone will hate you if you don’t support this or that or the other thing. If you don’t support this charity we created to help three-legged dogs, the world will probably end.
Well sure, I really like dogs. But in what world is that more important than ending violence in Syria?
You tell me that ethical treatment of animals is the most important thing. But your cousin says equality for gay couples is the most important thing. I guess I should support the human cause, right? Okay. But then my professor tells me that if we don’t protect the environment, in fifty years there won’t even be a decent world for anybody — animal or gay or straight. So I guess that’s more important. But then the news tells me that Iran and North Korea are developing nuclear weapons, so I guess that’s really the most important because if they decide to use those we’re all up that foul-smelling creek.
I can write a letter to Kim-Jong and Mahmoud, but is that really going to help? What am I supposed to do? Part of me just wants to curl up and wait for the mushroom cloud.
Tell me it’s all about scale and scope. Tell me to choose what’s important to me. Tell me it’s okay to choose something small, something I can actually accomplish. But if you’re telling me all of that, quit telling me to change “the world.”
It’s overwhelming, all of this activism. I need somebody to blame, and I’m taking it out on social media. It certainly has its purposes. It’s a great communication tool, and it’s successfully changed things in the past. But it also gives us this false sense of helpfulness. We bandwagon onto causes because if 40 friends and 20,000 other random people support this, it must be important, right?
But really, what difference are you making? Oh, you changed your Facebook profile picture to a red equal sign? Good job, you! Good job, everyone and their mothers!
“I’m just showing my support!” you counter. Yes, Facebook is the best place for that. Shouldn’t the people you care about (aka, your friends) already know your stance on gay marriage? If it’s really a cause you care about, I hope you talk about it offline.
Or maybe you post that red equal sign because you do talk about it offline, and you’re making an effort to match your on and offline personas. Tip: most of the time, it seems like bragging or posturing.
“Awareness” is the other big word these days. “I’m really passionate about raising awareness for human trafficking,” someone said to me last week. I held my tongue, but a flurry of cynical responses came to mind. Maybe that’s my problem — I’m too skeptical — but I really don’t understand the point of awareness. What difference does it make if I’m aware that girls in Islamic countries aren’t allowed to go to school? That’s really just knowledge for my filing cabinet brain.
Awareness has two possible results: self-righteousness or guilt. It can be a self-righteous competition about who can be aware of the most things, who can change her profile picture the most times, who can sign the most change.org petitions. Or, it can be a source of guilty feelings because once we’re aware of something, aren’t we called to do something about it?
It’s hard to talk about activism and causes and awareness because we’re afraid of being hypocrites. I haven’t got a way to end this piece because I want to tell you to get off your Facebook page and your butt and go do something. But I really shouldn’t, because I haven’t figured out how to do that myself. I don’t know which cause is the most important, and I don’t know what action I’m supposed to take.
I’m open for suggestions.