It seems like every couple of weeks there's a new campaign or movement happening across social media. You only need to click a button to spread the message. If you want to share your own voice on the matter, you just add the corresponding hashtag. But with the almost limitless audience of the Internet comes plenty of quick and destructive backlash. When messages are constantly being shoved down your throat, how do you choose which ones to listen to? How do you know if you're actually doing enough? How do you deal with people who disagree?
It's a hard world to navigate, and there's definitely a learning curve. I've grown up with my life revolving around technology and social media, but I don't know everything. That being said, here's how I personally deal with "trendy" activism, advocacy, and influence in our society.
I try to approach advocacy trends with curiosity rather than skepticism.
Of course, it is important always ask, "Is this true?" However, skepticism usually stops there. If you allow yourself to be curious, you can answer that question and also find out other information such as how the trend originated and why. Is there a significant disconnect in the way different people talk about it? Asking whatever questions pop into your mind will allow you to have a better understanding of an issue before you make any harsh judgments.
It's also important, especially when asking these questions, to see the bigger picture. What is the actual issue at hand? Take #RefuseTheStraw, for example. It's not rooted in some deep hatred of straws; it's about plastic waste. The campaign invites you to eliminate this one source of pollution to make you more aware of how small things make a big difference. Ideally, it just plants the idea in your head that you are capable of reducing your plastic waste and encourages you to take off from there.But #RefuseTheStraw quickly evolved into a guilt tactic. Many declared that if you use plastic straws then you're a selfish person who doesn't care about the earth. As straw bans began to rise up across the world, disabled people joined the conversation. They fought for their right to use single-use plastic straws, which are life-saving to those who can't sip their drinks. The big picture was always plastic waste, but it escalated into an issue of disabled rights. Both are very important issues, but we cannot gauge either one on the basis of plastic straws alone.
We also have the responsibility to understand who is actually affected by the issues at hand. You're not a bad person for asking, "How does this affect me?" It's not selfish to figure out your own connection to what's happening around you. But if something doesn't directly affect you, that is not your signal to either shut up on the subject or be entirely against it. Figure out who it does actually affect, and listen to them. People who have not experienced sexual violence may not connect personally with the #MeToo movement, but it has gained a lot of ground nonetheless because it has supporters from all backgrounds that empathize with the survivors. However, it is also important to consider not just who is affected, but who is most affected. In the same context, sexual violence is much more likely to happen to a minority: people of color, LGBTQ+,\ and disabled people among the highest at risk. And yet, they are the least-recognized in our society's fight against sexual violence (and just about every other issue as well).
Whether we want to believe it or not, we are ranking the importance of certain voices in a movement before we even hear what they have to say.
But there are ways that we can equalize this power structure. At the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., Parkland students used their platform to project the voices of those who are most affected by gun violence: communities of color. For those of us who aren't given a platform by the media, work to build your own. Be vocal on social media. Register your friends to vote. Support government representatives who are intersectional.
I want to take this a step further and challenge you to think even beyond the inequalities within specific movements. Look for discrepancies that exist between the popularities of certain movements. Why is veganism so trendy while so few people will boycott an unethical company? Why has every movement I've listed so far gained the traction that it has? Are we all born activists, or do we join in because mass dissent feels exciting?
I don't think that anyone should shame themselves for being empowered, even if it is the result of influence from others. Influence is important. Without it, we would all be static people who never change throughout their lives. In this time of revolution, we are all asking ourselves, "What is important to us?" I am so proud to be part of a generation that is constantly asking this question and readily fighting when we know the answer. It's incredible that activism is widespread enough to even be considered trendy at all. But with all the buzz of the world, we just have to step back and make sure we also ask, "Why?"