Activism, Slacktivism or Distractivism?

By Christian Piatt 6-13-2012
hoto of Ugandan children by David Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images. Illustratio
Photo of Ugandan children by David Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images. Illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

I struggle to know how much is enough. I hear about Joseph Kony and the many children he’s exploited as child soldiers. I get angry, discouraged. I write about it, talk to friends about it.

And then my life keeps moving and I don’t think about it again for days or weeks.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, is gunned down on the street. The nation is divided, both outraged about the killing and fearful of the threat to gun rights and laws of self-defense.

And then we talk about something else.

Today’s issues include the nuns going head-to-head with the Vatican, as well as stories about still more preachers being busted for spousal abuse, or expelled from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

Tomorrow it will be something else.

We can hardly keep up as it is, let alone respond to all of the suffering, injustice and tragedy we see around us. It’s easy to see how folks might be come calloused, habitually blind to the hardship in their midst, simply as a means of survival. But at the same time, there’s a smoldering passion to do something.

“It seems like everyone is an activist these days,” said a college student this week in a workshop I am a part of at Chapman. “Everywhere you look, someone has a cause, and they’re competing for your attention, trying to get you to care about what they care about.”

There was a study done some time back that placed only a few jelly options on crackers for people to sample and pick their favorite. Then they replaced the two or three options with a dozen options. Intuitively, one would think that participants would sample more jellies. But in fact, they tried even less, and more folks would not even participate at all.

The volume of choice simply was too much, so they walked away.

It was pointed out to me that, although we all claim interest in various causes, our investment (personal, financial or emotional) is very little. We might post a link on Facebook, or even click on a donate link for a certain cause and pitch in $10 if we’re really convicted.

I remember my grandparents telling me about the noble civic duty of volunteerism, but we’ve seemed to lose some of the depth of buy-in. And I can’t help but wonder why.

Is it because, along with the increased visibility and reach of the causes, they can affect necessary change by tapping more people for less? Are we sharing the responsibility more efficiently? Is this the new, streamlined, leaner, meaner 21st century model for effective activism?

Or is it more about social perception than actual concern? Do we figure we’d better post something socially conscious once in a while to avoid being labeled a heartless narcissist? Do we care (kind of) but not really enough to do anything that matters? Have we turned into a nation of slacktivists?

Maybe it’s like the jelly jars. We’re so overwhelmed that we are paralyzed when faced with making a choice. Like holding up your hand to stop and oncoming train, the little that we have to offer seems fairly pointless? And no matter how much we do or give, there will just be more need tomorrow. So what’s the point. We’re driven to distraction by the persistent need and brokenness, and in being so worried about what to do, we do little or nothing?

When I consider Jesus’ ministry, there are plenty of ways to measure his life’s work and deem it a failure. In the end, he had no followers, no money, and certainly no nice, fancy church sanctuary named in his honor. There still were prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, beggars and murderers. Some people got wealth and power without deserving it, while others continued to suffer without just cause.

But even Jesus knew his limits. Despite the clamoring crowds, demanding ever more of him, he remained focused on his mission and message. Yes, he offered healing, shared stories and lived a life of humble service as he urged others to learn from. Still, there was darkness, despair and damage everywhere.

There’s an old story about the guy walking along the beach, placing starfish back in the ocean after a storm. Another man walks by and, seeing that there are millions of starfish all around the man, he asks him why he’s bothering. After all, does what he is doing really matter?

“It matters to this one,” the man says, placing one more starfish back in the ocean.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date." For more information about Christian,, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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