Age of slacktivists: is there activism at Colby?

Twenty-seven years ago, thousands of Burmese university students marched together for religious and ethnic equality, combating the oppressive forces that were and are so deeply embedded within its social order. Echoes of this student activism continue to be heard in Burma’s universities, struggling against continued surveillance and the silencing of powerful young voices. Today, Greek students have sought to sustain the powerful, politically-driven groups that have characterized their universities since the end of the 1974 military junta. All over the world, student activism has thrived, provoked, and oftentimes, failed. It’s no wonder that its volatile nature has left us both inspired and skeptical.

It seems that our ambivalence has given birth to a new kind of activism—one with a hashtag in front of 140 characters. “Slacktivism” has been the source of a growing number of debates about the future of America’s younger generation and the power of social media. Is it possible that what fierceness Colby maintains in its academics, it lacks in community organization and whole-hearted activism?

We must remember that our generation grew up with computers and cell phones, with our knowledge perpetually influenced by visuals in an instant. So, it’s hard to claim social media as an ineffective agent of socio-political mobility. Social media sensations spread like wildfire, making events and opinions known to an ever-increasing number of people within and across borders. Take the #ICantBreathe campaign, where a hashtag using the last words of police brutality victim Eric Garner became the universal slogan mobilizing protests against the racial inequalities and judicial corruption that permeate American society. Here is a situation where a hashtag gave identity to an issue, making it more accessible and relevant to people around the world.

Slacktivism persists at Colby, as activist communities have congregated online and centers for civic engagement are active on social media. Colby is a highly academic environment where students must dedicate most of their time to studying while managing heavy workloads with other activities. Ester Topolavora ’17, a founding member of the activist group United for Better Dining Services (UBDS), believes that Colby’s structure prevents students from becoming active outside of clubs. She explained “We learn how to raise awareness in classes but not how to organize. I also think a lot of people, including myself, are involved in too many things, so it’s hard to focus on one thing and do it properly.”

Perhaps slacktivism is fostered out of this lack of a sense of organization and acts as an efficient platform for students to raise awareness about issues that they find important. With busy schedules and different priorities, students can use social media to call attention to issues  they find meaningful without losing time in their day.

However efficient a slacktivist culture may seem in our fast-paced community, it indicates a certain level of political ambivalence among us. Of course, this type of activism can grab attention and incite discussion, but it doesn’t seem to go beyond that. The student body is full of divergent and convergent opinions that are routinely put into conversation with generally unrecognizable outcomes. Slacktivism reveals a kind of gateway through which students are able to come forward with ideas without too much criticism. This might be an indication that Colby students might regard full-fledged activism as too aggressive or imposing upon the student body. In this aspect, Colby does not present an environment in which activism is able to thrive freely. It is critical that we recognize slacktivism as a powerful tool for engagement, but the true importance and possibility for change lies in the ability to step over the line that most would find danger in crossing.

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