Sunday, March 11, 2012

Click v. Act

A Change Is Gonna Come - Ben Sollee (mp3)
With My Own Two Hands - Jack Johnson feat. Ben Harper (mp3)

“Your mouth runs faster than your mind.”

The relatives of mine who said this often aimed it at me in my adolescence. It was their way of trying, often in vain, to get me to think and process before allowing words to emerge from betwixt my impulsive lips.

We now live in a culture that has all but given up trying to slow things down or mull things over. The immediacy of our world does not allow us to value contemplation. To mull things is to fall behind.

This new reality played out once again last week when, in the course of just three days, a video called “Kony 2012” surpassed 40 million views. The speed of its virality, thanks to Facebook, was unprecedented, certainly for something that aimed to send an activist-type message.

Invisible Children is a demigod of modern activism. Begun in the fires of the Internet 2.0, they knew that internet video combined with Facebook and a small troupe of young travelers could quickly enlarge their support group, mostly with young WASPs destined to fight one another for a spot in The One Percent.

They sell DVDs and bracelets and superkewl varieties of schwag, all aimed at getting your money while giving you the simultaneous feeling of having bought something cool yet also being an Aware Global Citizen.

Nothing is more promising to a group like Invisible Children than a white college sophomore sitting at his computer playing WoW and thinking, ever so briefly, “Geez, I sure wish there was something I could do to fix all the problems in the world.” In steps Invisible Children to say “Well, there is! And you don’t even have to stop playing WoW for too long! Just watch this video, buy a bracelet, and you’ve done your part!”

IC has visited the school where I work on at least three separate occasions in the past few years. The first time they came, I was blown away by them. Their video was a perfect combination of homemade and masterfully produced and edited, a sort of Blair Witch Charity Project where overhead shots pan down on piles of children sleeping on top of one another in crowded rooms.

By the third time, things were getting a little fishy, or careless, or something. The main presenter looked like he had just finished a 10-year stint as a doped-out Deadhead, and what used to feel like clever attempts at fundraising felt like bad Super Bowl commercials filtered through a megachurch. And it wasn’t just me who felt it. The students did, too. It seemed clear to many of us that they had somehow overgrown their original hopes and become so big as to prioritize the success of their own brand over their causes for Africa.

To be fair, my cynicism is a tad bit unfairly harsh, although the magnifying glass is about to get a lot warmer for them. Both The Atlantic Wire and FastCoExist -- and untold dozens of other media outlets -- have offered fascinating and fairly even-handed explorations of the heat and light surrounding Invisible Children and KONY 2012, and reasonable minds seem only able to conclude that there’s room for skepticism but also room to believe IC is genuinely trying to and succeeding at running one amazingly successful awareness campaign after another.

We are a culture born to be cynical of quick success. Winning lotteries, marrying celebrities and going viral on YouTube all tend to evoke cultural backlash as the jackals sniff for blood and injury, for weaknesses to scavenge. So it was with the blowback on Invisible Children.

Not to brag, but I work for a school where we do activism and community service far more right than we do wrong. We do not require student participation, but we do require those who participate to take ownership and responsibility. Inevitably at times, teachers and adults have to help more than we claim, with planning, phone calls, scheduling. But plenty of times the teens are invested and passionate enough to do much of it themselves.

And then they show up and give their time and get their proverbial hands dirty. Building. Tutoring. Playing. Praying. Walking or running. Washing or clothing. Often in town, but also numerous times each year in other states and other countries.

I can’t prove it, but in my heart I know that the teens who take part in our programs gain a much richer sense of the challenges and struggles of the less fortunate than they could ever get by clicking trivia questions to send grains of rice.

If we’re not careful, clicktivism risks crippling activism, with the key base words being “Click” overtaking “Act.” I’m no technophobe or luddite, but I’ll never be convinced that the humans in WALL-E could make as much of a positive difference in the world of the needy and suffering as people who get out of their houses, roll up their sleeves, and work with, for, alongside those in need.

Taking the human touch out of activism does more harm than good.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Well put. Couldn't have written it better myself.

Billy Bob said...

Billy, this sounds like you leaving a comment on your own post. Really, Billy?