Equals, Pink on Red (A Defense of Cheap Activism)

facebookequalsSonny Bunch and Liam Julian take issue with the recent Facebook campaign of folks changing their profiles to a pink-on-red equals sign. From Julian:

Let’s be real: the broad majority of those who adopted HRC’s photo had, theretofore, not lifted a finger on behalf of gay marriage. And when they did lift a finger, that’s all they did—lift a finger and click the mouse a few times.

Which is not to say one can support a political cause only if he works for it 24/7. But what percentage of those with HRC profile pictures have spent even a few minutes reading intelligently about the gay marriage debate, e-mailing their elected representatives, donating to gay-marriage support groups, or listening to this week’s oral arguments? These, alas, are largely private pursuits, and they don’t come with public validation in the form of positive comments and “likes.”

And so we get more mass slacktivism: low-effort, public activism that risks nothing, oversimplifies complicated topics, and has more to do with the individual than the cause. It’s offensive and trite.

I get where he’s coming from, but I view this mostly as the equivalent of yardsigns or maybe bumper stickers. I rarely apply either, but I did partake in the Facebook exercise. And if we had something on the state ballot, I’d probably put a yardsign up.

Why? Why on this issue and not on any other? Partially because this is one of those issues where I see black and white and feel pretty strongly about it. It’s also an issue where I can make a statement – however minor – as someone that doesn’t fit into the conventional liberal mold. People on Facebook know I don’t, so this is my very quickhand way of saying “Yeah, even though I might support these non-liberal policies, I also support this.”

Is it cheap? Sure. But that’s okay. So are yardsigns. But yardsigns can have the affect of raising awareness of a particular candidate or issue. And because it’s easy, it’s easily replicated. One of the issues with the gay marriage movement is that the non-passionate supporters have been “on the run” in the conversation. Politicians whom many of us feel have supported gay marriage privately have publicly disavowed that support? Why? The perception of a lack of popular support. The last poll in my state on the issue is that it’s 50/50. You’d never guess it, though, because opponents of SSM are so much more likely to speak up in such larger numbers. It would have been better for the movement had there been more “cheap” activism for longer. More solidarity outside liberal circles. And I’ve seen more than a few posted by people who are not enthusiastically liberal across-the-board.

This is not at all to criticize those that didn’t participate. I could have gone either way, to be honest. And in many ways, this sort of thing runs against my grain. But, vain though it may be, it is nice to know that a lot of people agree with you on an issue that, not that long ago, made you fringey.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Admittedly, it’s not an active stand for truth and justice like forwarding e-mails that prove Obama’s a secret Muslim.

    • To be fair, it’s a lot less work than say, bribing hookers to give false testimony or editing videos you took of people to be completely misleading.

      • The first one at least shows good insight. “Hmm, I need to find someone who’ll say things I want to hear if I pay them. Lawyers? Politicians? Nahh, people reflexively disbelieve them. There must be somebody else who does that.”

  2. Well, I happen to think there’s value in it, even though I readily recognize that it will make absolutely no difference in the outcome of the SCOTUS ruling. (For the record, I didn’t change my profile picture, but it made me happy to see so many who did.)

    The thing about this particular issue as opposed to many others is that it is premised on antipathy toward a particular population. (In this case, folks like me.) Antipathy begets antipathy, and if people believe their antipathy is shared by many people they will be more comfortable in it. Seeing a whole bunch of one’s friends and acquaintances expressing a contrary view won’t necessarily make anyone change one’s mind, but it may make the antipathy just a wee bit less comfortable. Since changing minds is a lengthy and slow process, simply making them contemplate how many people really share their viewpoint is as good a first step as any.

    • Russell said what I was thinking, better than I could’ve. Thanks, Russell.

      (Also, “But what percentage of those with HRC profile pictures have spent even a few minutes reading intelligently about the gay marriage debate, e-mailing their elected representatives, donating to gay-marriage support groups, or listening to this week’s oral arguments?” – going by the people whose profiles I saw? about 90 percent – at least on the reading and donating parts.)

  3. Advertising theory calls this “creating awareness”. Without awareness, you can’t proceed to Knowledge or form an Opinion. Sure, at some level, it’s just an easy-peasy and sorta-sleazy way to say you’re Doing Something — and for some people, they get some good feelings, as if they were actually doing something.

    But when Red Cross gets some Hollywood star to wear the little Red Cross cloisonné pin at some gala, they know what they’re doing. Coca Cola doesn’t buy just one banner on the edge-of-pitch fence at some Premier League event. It buys multiples. Impressions, they call it in advertising.

  4. I’m changing mine back tonight. But even if didn’t mean much in the long run, it was kind of cool to see something like this. A lot of my friends did variants (I stole mine from a friend — it’s at my website) — vampire teeth, bacon, Willie Nelson had reefers… A lot of creativity went on over these few days.

  5. oversimplifies complicated topics

    Damn people who think they can tell right from wrong and don’t come to exactly the same conclusions I do. it’s even worse when mine comes from smart, complicated reasoning and they get to the same place by saying “Duh.”

  6. Nonetheless, as Mo (an occasional commenter here) said, “My lack of an equal sign is less a comment on my views on gay marriage and more of a comment on my views on Facebook activism”

    • But that said, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people with the red square equals sign in my feed, and a lot of people I would have never expected.

  7. I look at it like this:

    One of the big changes on the issue of gay rights was the dawning realization that gay people were not some nebulous “other” that existed far away in strange cities and did horrible, strange things….

    But were in fact people you knew. People you were related to. People you liked. People you could relate to.

    They showed up on TV, openly. They defied stereotype. (Sure, they often embraced stereotype and god knows TV is often ham-fisted and clumsy and cheesy, but it beat not existing — and it got better).

    In short, people were flat out forced to realize that the gays they hated and disdained weren’t faceless far-away figures, but their neighbors, coworkers, and kids. And that forced change.

    Stuff like this facebook thing? It doesn’t sway courts. But it does illustrate how the landscape on gay rights has changed in ways that poll snapshots don’t. Sure, Bob might read a poll that says “SSM has hit X%, and demographics this and that” — but seeing his facebook feed full of people cheering on SSM, and realizing his kids are all for it — makes it real.

    Polls are abstracts. A ton of statements on your facebook page? That’s real. Those are people you know. It’s peer pressure, pushing and manipulating social norms.

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