The trouble with armchair activism
The gay community can achieve great things when they’re galvanised into action. But movements steered with hashtags and clicks only go so far. It’s time to get off the armchair, writes Troy Chiodo-Gurr.
The ultra-conservative Christian lobby group, the Salt Shakers, have been at this game for years. The moment the words “gay” and “equality” appear in the same sentence, an alert is sent out to their database, complete with a pro forma letter for their members to cut-and-paste, to quash whatever piece of pro-gay legislation, television program or bawdy joke that’s about to get over the line. They’re efficient, ruthless, and often get their man.
In my time in gay media, I’ve also been subject to (and occasionally the subject of) this same form of carpet-bombing. My inbox has been flooded by angry and curiously consistent emails demanding I reinstate a columnist or muddy the reputation of a particular dance party. These orchestrated attacks usually only lasted a few hours. Eventually the perpetrator ran out of friends.
Both of these examples have two things in common - an angry loner, and an address book of able minions. Conservatives are usually pretty good at these campaigns. They’re traditionally more zealous, more fanatical, and more comfortable with telling other people how to live their lives. The liberal groups are invariably younger, disorganised and fractured. Conservatives are soldiers, a well-funded army targeting leaders and decision-makers. The liberals talk of rebellion amongst their Facebook friends and organise poorly attended and ill-defined protest rallies.
In the age of social media (and the penchant traditional media has for giving it airtime), sending in the attack dogs is now a whole lot easier. In the last week alone, social media has been credited for getting an opera singer fired and an Islamic cleric silenced. We should all be so proud.
In many ways, the Opera Australia saga was a perfect storm. Someone found old statements of a soprano and re-posted them on Opera Australia’s Facebook page. A thousand people joined the choir in disapproval. The media took up the story and gave it wider coverage. The sponsors and moneymen got nervous. Apologies were issued. The soprano was sacked. And we all rested easier that night.
I didn’t. I thought about all the things I’d written over the years that could get me fired. I wondered if it was the public’s job to sanction a singer because a handful of us didn’t agree with her personal views. I wondered how many of those thousand people had read the full story, or had simply ‘liked’ it in it’s original 180-character form. I wondered if it made any real difference to anyone’s life. And I wondered if we’d really got our man.
Social media activism (or as one critic called it, “slacktivism”) is sketchy at best. While it’s instrumental in raising awareness to an issue, rarely does it give any context, any bigger picture, or affect any serious change. It caters to, by design, a limited attention span. It preys on ignorance and peer pressure. And in the sphere of activism, it’s small potatoes.
The gay community needs to think bigger. Claiming the scalp of an opera singer for a year-old rant on her private Facebook page is small time. It’s punitive, not proactive, to go after soft targets like villagers wielding pitchforks. We look like bullies - online bullies - hiding behind avatars and pseudonyms, taking someone down a peg whose greatest crime was a difference of opinion, an opinion which was given greater weight by us drawing attention to it.
Social media activism is often too late to the party. One of the most successful campaigns in recent years was launched by the Human Rights Commission, who encouraged Facebook users to replace their profile picture with their photo of an equal sign in recognition of same-sex marriage. 70,000 people did it. At the time, the HRC was drawing attention to the legal battle being waged in California over marriage recognition, a legal stoush that by that point was already several years old. Did the campaign truly change the minds of anyone who wasn’t already on the side of angels? Did it truly aid the legal cause? Did it influence the decision of the Supreme Court? No, it’s safe to assume it didn’t.
What it did, however, was make us feel better. It was a warm and fuzzy. American writer Dan Savage pointed out that his online campaign, ‘It Get’s Better’, gave him direct access to gay and lesbian school children without having to fight the authority of the schools. But fighting the authority of schools is activism. Challenging authority is what creates change. Skirting authority makes you a part of the underground.
And isn’t it about time that gay community reached the surface? The number of people who were outraged by the soprano’s homophobic rant is roughly the same number of people who are members at the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby. Who do you want in your corner? The number of people who posted on Opera Australia’s page is roughly three times the number of people who attended our last same-sex marriage rally. Where were you? Is Opera Australia really the villain we should target? Or do we have bigger fish to fry?
Decisions are made by those who show up. They’re rarely made by those who tweet about it afterwards.