Donald Miller, slacktivism, and activism

May 10, 2010

activism / culture

I’ve made no secret that I love Donald Miller. His books and blog have encouraged me, shaped my thinking, and challenged me. A few days ago, he wrote a post called Are You a Slacktivist? that I think is worthy of a response, out of emotions and thoughts of agreement, disagreement, and confusion that at times in my own life border upon despair.

The point of his post, essentially, is this: many folks these days buy t-shirts, update our Facebook and Twitter statuses, and send money to various things that may not actually require us to change the ways we live, but we still want to feel like humanitarians and activists. He compares this directly with the cost of, for example, being a positive role model for folks without fathers.

Now. First of all, I love Donald Miller’s own organization, The Mentoring Project, and have deep appreciation for what it is doing, and the difference it has made and will make in the lives of mentors and mentees. It can’t be overestimated. Obviously, he’s trying to get folks to think about getting involved with something like it. As we should.

But I’ve also made no secret that I adore organizations that work to build wells, free child soldiers, and stop human trafficking – all of these are things that he specifically mentions that can cause “slacktivism.”

I see the point. It’s possible to give money to these organizations, buy their merchandise, update various social media outlets and websites, and never change the way we live. I know there are folks like this, whose lives are not affected by the cheap awareness endeavors in which they engage.

Invisible Children responded to him with their own post, choosing not to disagree with him and reminding us that they don’t want to be an easy deed that eases our consciences and neglects to challenge us. In it, they write this:

Rather, Invisible Children hopes to be the starting point of humanitarian work. It hopes to show people their potential for influence, without regard for their age. IC should be the leaping-off point for activism and fighting injustice – the eye-opener to a broken world. IC will never say that child soldiers in Uganda is the only cause you should care about. We only demand that you not be apathetic about the suffering in the world.

Now, I’ve been involved with Invisible Children on a significant level for at least two years, and have been fortunate to meet a good number of current employees and roadies, former employees and roadies – many of whom have gone on to start their own organizations – and also a great number of local folks who participate in events, update their statuses, and buy merchandise.

None of the people in these groups with whom I’ve had significant interactions have been able to to go on with their normal lives. The ones who fell in love with the invisible children of Uganda have learned to get in touch with elected officials, how to use art and creativity to express their desire for change and tell the stories that have affected them and their own stories, and they’ve learned in general to have hope and idealism for such change.

Many of them have also fallen in love with the child soldiers of the Congo, trapped in a war that makes the materials for our cell phones and computers cheap, benefiting countless corporations, governments, and individuals while ignoring the suffering of millions. They’ve learned of systemic injustice, and that they have a place in it. They don’t know what to do about it, necessarily, but they’ve learned and are trying to do something.

Once one learns of systemic injustice, and his or her own place in it, the world isn’t the same. Many learn of similar oppressive systems further from (Israel and Palestine, or American imperialism, for example) and closer to (increasingly irrelevant institutions of religion, or the entrenchment of sex trafficking in major American cities, for example) home, and they learn of their own roles and opportunities to evoke change in these systems as well. It’s a beautiful thing to see and experience.

Now, this is where I disagree with Donald Miller. I’ve seen the deep and lasting effect that these organizations have had in my own life and the lives of folks that I love. I will never be the same. I will never buy things the same way. I will never look at Africa the same way, and I’ll never look at the other dear people in my generation the same way.

But I also agree with him in darker moments. I see myself in it. I feel like I talk a lot about justice and activism without doing anything that costs me anything. I don’t call myself an activist or a humanitarian, though I often wonder if I’ll ever get to a point at which I think that’s an appropriate term. I ponder ways in which I can learn to use my life as a theologically-educated web designer who wants to seek justice to actually seek justice, combining all of my passions for ministry and spirituality, and design and code, and justice and activism, in ways that make something beautiful. Some days, I think I’ve got it. Some days, I think I’ve got ideas that will lead me to it. Other days, I think I never will get it.

Do you have days like this? What do you think?