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Have we gotten the message?

| Thursday, December 1, 2016

With the advent of social media, political activism has been intimately tied to a keyboard. Today, radical ideas displayed upon laptop screens are the most prominent and popular mode of initiating social change.  Although venues such as Facebook and Instagram have changed the face of modern society, has it effectively changed the political sphere in which we currently live? Within primary school, it was not uncommon to learn about the flavors of protesting.  Whether discussing Civil Rights Era sit-ins or Vietnam War draft card burnings, the millennial generation has obtained an intimate understanding of the power of political activism. Because of this, it is not uncommon to hear commentary from elder generations in regards to the lack of substantial political involvement that has existed since the turn of the 21st century.  However, it is clear to see that the face of our generation may be reverting back to the protests of the days of our grandparents. So have we gotten the message?

In regards to the forms of social media political involvement that have become relatively commonplace, the UN coined the term “slacktivism,” explained thus: “This term combines the words slacker and activism and posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.”  The greatest difference between slacktivism and 1960s protests are not necessarily the venues through which ideas are conveyed, but rather is the underlying commitment to physical presence.

Slacktivism is satisfying in that it fills the need of young, idealistic people to feel that they are working towards a better world and affecting change without requiring those involved to risk much. In signing petitions, sharing statuses and reposting articles, we signal that we care — and we often actually do — without having to back that commitment with any real sacrifice. We can support various causes, ranging from animal rights to racial justice to environmental concerns all from the comfort of our couches, and often we get the added social benefit of showing others that we care publicly.

Even when we have gotten up to protest, we have stood on college campuses, which often revel in productive student demonstrations. However, the risk of consequences for these actions are relatively small, but the media follows and reposts, lending to the feeling that there is a real contribution and change being made. However, the negligible amount of personal sacrifice that millennials are willing to take on also takes away from the effectiveness of activism and protests. Physical presence while protesting is an American tradition, and for a while it seemed as though our generation was relatively characterized by an air of abstinence … until now.

A modern example of this currently exists within the North Dakota Standing Rock reservation. The Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Native Americans are protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline. This conflict between indigenous peoples and the United States government is characterized by a mixture of land, environmental and Native American rights. Whether or not one is in favor of the pipeline, one must acknowledge the risk those are taking by using their physical presence at the site of protest. Because of this, there is legitimized hope in that the political system will respond to the pleas of the protesters.

Well done, committed social movements create change. People see that there is a strong and deeply considered dedication to an issue, which leads them to seek understanding or reexamine their existing views. This is not a call to get out there and protest everyday because that would be the same kind of scattered commitment that exists online. However, when an issue emerges that is profound and that strikes someone as requiring change, when there is a real conviction that the law is not supporting the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or a commitment to human rights, it is valuable to put some skin in the game. Demonstrating a deep belief in an issue and real commitment both creates a stronger and more honest dialogue and contributes positively to our political life in a way that paying lip service to an issue or engaging in a brief, emotional protest cannot.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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