Opinion: Performative activism — How to spot it and what it means

Everyone turned into an activist this last summer. Filling their Instagram stories, Twitter timelines and Tik Tok for-you pages with the issues that mattered to them.

Whether it was speaking up and raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women, the Black Lives Matter movement or the humanitarian crisis in Yemen you couldn’t watch a YouTube video or mindlessly scroll through a social media app without being confronted with the harsh realities of the world around us. And that was a good thing.

As a society and a generation, we have been blinded by our privilege for so long and our ability to turn off the real world and dip into the sacred sweetness of the digital one. But now the digital world and everyone who had a small piece of it was speaking up and changing to reflect what was going on here in real life.

But then, as the leaves fell off the literal trees and the seasons changed from summer to autumn, influencers, celebrities and everyday people alike fell off the metaphorical trees of activism returned to their previous, filtered in a bubble lives. 

And why is that? You might be wondering, or you might already know? If so what are you thinking? The people didn’t care? The “trend” of being an activist was over?

If your thoughts were along those lines, you were right, and those conjectures can be summed up with the phrase coined as “Performative Activism.”

According to an essay published on Medium, performative activism is a type of activism someone does to increase their social persona or personal gain, rather than actually supporting a movement, issue or cause.

And although its disappointing and sad I would say the majority of people that were posting about social issues this summer did it not because they thought the issues they were posting about deserved recognition, but rather because they were worried they would lose followers or brand deals or friends if they stayed silent.

And although there is some substance to the argument that says performative activism at least spreads awareness, spreading awareness isn’t enough. Yes, people knowing about issues going on in the world is important but just knowing about them doesn’t do anything.

If I know how to solve a quadratic function that’s great, but if I don’t exercise that knowledge on the exam, that doesn’t do anything. That analogy and logic can be applied to how performative activism works. 

Present-day there are two types of performative activists: the ones that have stopped posting or sharing anything in general, and the ones that still share, but only because their motivation is still that inner desire and knowledge about what they could gain from posting not what the movement gains. 

And finally spotting a performative activist is very easy, someone who posts about the insensitivity and unacceptability of racist jokes and yet still makes them, someone who seemingly cares about LGBTQIA rights and yet dates a homophobic person behind the scenes, someone who thinks their actually the anti performative activist and speaks about how that’s not who they want to be, but then remains silent on issues that matter because the “don’t know enough” about them, and yet puts off educating themselves.

At its core, performative activism is a mirror into human nature, and how most things people do, no matter how seemingly selfish are because of the desire to self soothe and feel like a good person rather than be one.

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