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What is Activism? How Colloquial Meanings, the Internet, & Social Media Shape Advocacy for Social Issues

digital drawing of black and brown women with raised fists saying, "What do we want?" "Change for the better!"

Since its first known use in 1915, activism has been a buzzword signaling advocacy for a cause or opposition to elements, such as legislation, designed to disenfranchise various, often marginalized, groups. Accessibility to the term meant that everyday citizens, regardless of profession, could be an activist. It can be argued that the most effective grassroots activism groups and individuals are everyday people who are directly impacted by local activism or lack thereof. Coordinated efforts of grassroots organizations have led to the Civil Rights Movement, women’s rights groups and, more recently, efforts to stop the atrocities surrounding U.S. border concerns.

Over time, activism, and what it is, has changed along with language, social issues, and technology, such as access to the internet and social media. What was once a more agreed upon public effort toward social change has now become a muddled battle ground of contention as activists and jeerers disagree on just what constitutes activism. So just what is activism in the new millennium?

To answer this question, it is important to figure out what some argue activism isn’t. In a bit of a controversial take, former United States president Barack Obama challenged so-called ‘cancel culture’ by stating, “That’s not activism.” The statement earned a fair amount of backlash and Obama was called everything from boomer to simply out of touch. Obama’s opinion, though unpopular, is shared by many in the continued divisive conversation about activism.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama discussing ‘cancel-culture’

Another opinion about activism is that it can only be done in public. This opinion likely stems from the public collaborative effort of protest techniques such as marches and picketing. However, the opinion is ableist and ignores the fact that activism is multi-faceted. Activism is more than marching and picketing. Activism is first about informing the community and politicians about issues. Educating does not necessarily require standing or leaving your home. Whether simply talking on the phone, texting, or using a video chat app, information can be easily dispersed to people within the community from within the comfort of your own home. With the invention and exponential growth of the internet, information is a click away. The use of social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook also allot for activists to create profiles to dispense information about social issues and concerns to a broader audience 24/7.

Is spreading information activism? First, activism has to be operationally defined. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, activism is, “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” If activism is direct vigorous action in support or opposition to one side of an issue, then educating the community and politicians about issues, whether face to face or virtually, is a direct vigorous action in support or opposition of a side of an issue. Activism can be achieved online. And not only through education. Protest strategies such as boycotts and more modern tactics such as utilizing fax machines as engines of protest are effective because of the internet. Most recently, Amazon was boycotted nationwide for questionable safety practices during the Covid-19 pandemic.

activist in wheelchair saying, "I can march beside you and probably longer! Online activism is what I choose to do."

This would mean that online activism is valid. All activism is valid, as long as that activism is advocating for the betterment of the people or groups affected. So, whether an activist has a physical disability, struggles with agoraphobia, or social anxiety—their hard work and efforts toward actionable change is valid and constitutes activism. This is important to note, as many able-bodied citizens discredit activism by people with various disabilities. Disabled activists have created actionable change for the betterment of all citizens, at micro, mezzo, and macro levels.

But does any of this apply to so-called ‘cancel-culture’? Like activism, cancel-culture has to be defined. A new term that already means different things to different people, cancel-culture is generally thought of as a collective community or culture ostracizing a person, place, or thing deemed anything from offensive to criminal. People who have recently been dealt the ax of cancel culture include the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., and depending on who you ask, Dave Chappelle. The first three names are for sexual assault allegations, with Weinstein being recently convicted of sexual assault. The latter is for a series of transphobic remarks disguised as jokes, many of which were made after Chappelle acknowledged that members of his fanbase expressed offense to the content. Critics on both sides of the aisle of cancel-culture have argued on either ends of the spectrum from naysayers who argue that cancel-culture is damaging to those canceled, to people who don’t think cancel-culture has any real consequences and is a buzzword created to discourage unwanted criticism.

If cancel-culture isn’t real then this topic, Obama’s criticism of it, are all moot. If cancel-culture is real then is it creating actionable change? Before Weinstein’s conviction, he had been effectively canceled insofar as public outcry of opinion about him. Activism movements such as #MeToo founded by Tarana Burke, though co-opted by Alyssa Milano and Hollywood, provided a platform for people who had been victimized by Cosby, Weinstein, C.K., and many other prominent people in Hollywood. This all culminated in Weinstein’s and Cosby’s convictions. Burke is the activist who created the platform as a means for black women and other women of color to express experienced sexual assault. The end result is that many rich celebrities who have wielded power in Hollywood have been identified, some of whom have been taken to court and found guilty.

photo of Tarana Burke, #MeToo founder
Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo

It’s been over a hundred years since activism was coined in American English. With changes and advancements in technology, activism has changed as well. So much so that people can’t agree on what it is and isn’t. However, it’s imperative that we all remember that activism is simply action taken to support or oppose a side of an issue. Activists can work alone, in groups, at home, or in the community, and still successfully take actions to support or oppose an issue. Activists who have mental health and/or medical diagnoses are valid.

The existence of cancel-culture continues to be debatable as allegedly canceled people, such as Chappelle and C.K., still work and are still provided platforms to espouse often harmful rhetoric disguised as a joke. The most important aspects of activism are taking action and ensuring what you’re taking action for or against is beneficial to the population directly affected by the issue. Activists should be informed about the issues taken up to better understand how they can help resolve the issue. Activists are not exempt from criticism. Lastly, activists are necessary, and have existed long before there was a word to identify them.

image of computer, newspaper, & message of, "Make a Change" and follow The Juncture Mag

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