Are Armchair Activists Really So Bad?

By Ellie Haylund

Marie sees that Roe v. Wade was overturned. She heads to Instagram and posts about her outrage. Her post gets dozens of “likes,” but within a day, it has become buried in people’s feeds and minds.

Carl also finds out about Roe v. Wade and springs into action behind his phone screen. He finds a reputable organization to donate to and posts a link on Facebook. Friends and acquaintances see this post and are inspired. They donate a cumulative $500 via his link.

These scenarios are increasingly common these days. As humanists who care about the world, we are faced with an onslaught of new injustices, problems, and tragedies daily. We can feel tapped out on emotions, time, and in some cases, money. What is enough? Do we need to quantify our engagement in activism? If we cannot participate physically, is a call to action on social media performative? Will people think we are slacking activists – slacktivists, if you will? If an internet post is never seen, did it even happen?

A 19-year-old named Olivia Julianna was recently thrust into the spotlight for an internet post that sparked an almost unbelievable response. When Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida body-shamed Julianna in response to her pro-choice stance, she fought back, using it as an opportunity to encourage Twitter users to donate to abortion funds across the country. The response was swift and substantial – she raised over $2 million in a single week.

Julianna is an abortion-rights advocate and a political strategist with Gen Z for Change, a youth-led nonprofit that uses social media to generate awareness, fundraise, and engage with politicians. Though this naturally gave her a leg up in visibility, her action still represents the tweet-inspires-astounding-fundraising phenomenon.

Rare cases like these highlight one outlet available for those who don’t know how best to support causes. You see the numbers doubling, tripling. You see that it’s a legitimate fund and one that may make a valuable and immediate difference because of the massive influx of donations and momentum. That inspiration begets more, we enable mutual aid, and the exponential effect is achieved. That’s not slacktivism! That’s advocacy in the modern age!

But what about the norm, not the exception? Let’s step back to a more realistic, small-scale occurrence. If my tweet goes nowhere and serves no one, I am undoubtedly the dreaded armchair activist with no real contribution. But if my friend’s tweet catches a wave by chance, she has achieved something – even if our intentions were the same. Right?

Things get even more complex when we consider barriers like disabilities, poverty, and lack of disposable time – or, as popped up unexpectedly a few years ago, a pandemic.

When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, people around the world took to the streets in droves. It was a surreal, rare act of collective humanity. It was also complicated for many people. Covid was still in its infancy and vaccines were not available. Many opted out of physical marches and protests out of concern for their own and others’ health. There were alternatives – making financial donations to local organizations or food donations to neighborhoods where critical stores had closed down. And of course, social media.

Whether your options are narrowed by preexisting barriers or the sudden onset of a public health emergency, social media isn’t always a lazy alternative to more respectable forms of activism. It’s often the most accessible for personal circumstances. It’s just that we don’t always know that about others and they don’t always know that about us. Therein lies the problem with assumptions and perception when it comes to establishing the validity of another person’s form of advocacy.

In a time of carefully crafted maximum visibility of our every thought, stance, and action, it’s nearly impossible to avoid running what we see through an internal processor to perform a sentiment analysis. Are they being genuine? Performative? Principled? Sanctimonious? It’s incredibly easy for our brains to complete this exercise and render the verdict. “Picture from a rally…result loading…acceptable level of activism detected. Quote about equality and compassion…result loading…substandard level of activism detected.”

Is something better than nothing? Is everything something? Do we need to hold everyone to the same standard?

Ultimately, this is all subjective. People will do what they can, people will do nothing, and people will judge each other. People will be publicly present, people will keep their engagement under the radar, and people will scrutinize that. My two cents aren’t particularly groundbreaking, but I’m trying to see armchair activism in the best light. Most people are doing what they have the bandwidth to do during a time of relentless bad news. And when it comes to consuming and processing the content and contributions of others, I only have the bandwidth to see it all as good.

As members of a humanist community, we all engage in different ways. Some of us are active in service projects and advocacy. Some of us focus more on educational or social components. There is no right or wrong way to be a member of our organization. Being involved inherently makes a statement about supporting our mission – and that speaks volumes even if it’s not shouted from the virtual rooftops.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.


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