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Beyond the black box: Unpacking performative activism

If you didn’t see a single black square in your timeline, feed, dashboard, or any social media or news platform this summer—well, I’m not sure whether I’d be impressed or horrified. On June 2nd, Instagram feeds and social media platforms were flooded with black squares. Most of these were captioned with #BlackOutTuesday. Some included resources to take action through links to donate, sign petitions, or inform people about current issues. And then there were the ones captioned with #BlackLivesMatter or #BLM.

Black lives matter. That’s not up for debate. Yet the inclusion of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM in the captions of posts with black squares, whether well-intentioned or not, was entirely destructive. 

The black square, or the post of choice for Black Out Tuesday, started out under a different hashtag: #TheShowMustBePaused. Created by Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, #TheShowMustBePaused was an initiative started after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. It was meant to increase awareness about the racism and inequality in the music industry, particularly against Black artists. By June 2nd, the black squares had transformed to stand for something entirely different. Black Out Tuesday posts took over the #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM channels, burying real-time information surrounding ongoing protests and ways to join the movement in a performative void stretching hundreds of thousands of posts long.

Performative activism. Optical allyship. Slacktivism. Woke-tivists. At the end of the day, all these terms boil down to one thing: Do better.

 

Like many things on the internet, #BlackOutTuesday had its 15 seconds of fame before being relegated to background noise. Still, the black square caught on quickly, thanks to several cognitive processes that are part of our everyday lives.

At first glance, a black square is quite unremarkable. In the context of social media, though, a black square (at least pre-June 2nd) is jarring, confusing, and goes against all the conventions of social media. If we use social media to share information about our lives and to post colorful pictures of our days at the beach, a black square with little to no information would surely stand out. One concept in cognitive psychology explains this reaction: attention. When we first see a black square, we involuntarily direct our attention toward it, a phenomenon known as attentional capture. Attentional capture is spontaneous, reflexive, and naturally occurring as we process our environment, allowing us to notice surprising things so that we can respond to any possible threat or importance the object in question poses to us.

Attentional capture is important, but understanding what we’re seeing requires top-down processing of the information that caught our attention in the first place. In top-down processing, we quickly interpret our environment by combining new information from our senses with information already stored in our memory, including prior knowledge, ideas, and context. This process is useful because it’s efficient and saves us from expending additional resources and effort, but it can pose problems with accuracy if we fail to recognize specific details or generalize based on heuristics, stereotypes, and expectations. Heuristics are the mental shortcuts our minds have developed to quickly solve a problem or analyze a situation in ways that efficiently address the situation. This process usually works to get us through everyday life. However, there are cases when our heuristics fall short. When it comes to activism, heuristics and top-down processing offer us ways to understand the situation, but acting too quickly and assuming that we understand the full scope of the situation or that the immediate action we take will have good consequences are what can lead to performative activism instead of genuine activism.

Research by Lewis, Gray, & Meierhenrich (2014) argues that online activism leads to little lasting commitment and that the mobilizing abilities of social media have an inverse relationship to deep participation. A study by Kristofferson, White, & Peloza (2014) found that slacktivism is real, both digitally and in the real world. In their experiment, participants who publicly supported a cause were just as likely to engage meaningfully with the cause as participants who didn’t receive any incentive to support the cause: not a lot. Still, that isn’t to say that sharing information online or using social media is bad. Kristofferson, White, & Peloza’s study found that slacktivism was dependent on private or public actions. When participants were privately given an initial token display of support, such as signing a petition or joining a Facebook group, they were more likely to engage with the cause in meaningful ways. This research is important when we consider how social media makes all activism on these platforms available for public viewership, particularly through likes, comments, and views, which can act as token displays of support in addition to validation and praise. Keeping these findings in mind, we also must consider how online activism can take form in many ways.

According to research by Greijdanus et al. (2020), online activism allows individuals to engage with activism from shallow stances to deep engagement, such as through changing one’s profile picture or writing in-depth posts about current issues. While online activism has both positive and negative links to in-person activism, the relations between online and in-person activism are often inconsistent and vary based on a variety of other factors. However, social media facilitates online activism by offering platforms to share personal experiences and opinions, to find and organize community, and to reach and get new audiences engaged with current issues.

Performative activism is dangerous because we start believing that the number of people fighting for and achieving real change is greater than it actually is, a belief that is especially dangerous when we remember that these issues manifest in tangible ways and in offline spaces. Or maybe we get tired of seeing all the posts with information or frustrating facts, and we start to skim over or past them.

When that happens, it’s easy to fall into naïve realism and to get trapped in a unilateral view of the world. We might assume that the societal, consumerist, or policy changes have already happened or have addressed the issue, and start ignoring or rejecting opinions that say otherwise. Performative activism doesn’t just make us believe that we’re changemakers, it misleads others around us at best and dismisses the real concerns and violence enacted against the most vulnerable and oppressed groups in our community at worst. If we can avoid these cognitive traps and flawed actions (or the lack thereof), we can start expanding our perspective and figuring out real solutions for actionable change and real impacts in and for our community.

So… how do we spot performative activism?

Allyship is crucial, but it also is easy to do it wrong. Holiday Phillips explains how performative allyship is deadly and highlights four clues that can indicate performative activism in social media:

  1. Simplicity: “Performative allyship refuses to engage with the complexity below the surface or say anything new.”
  2. Expressed Anger: “Your outrage isn’t useful — if anything, it’s a marker of your privilege, that to you racism is still surprising.”
  3. Refusal of personal responsibility: Instead of looking at “the systemic issues that provided the context for the relevant tragedy…. It separates you (good) from them (bad).”
  4. Elevates the ally: Posts are “met with praise, approval, or admiration for the person expressing it. That is its lifeblood.”

Being an ally isn’t easy. Factors like actor-observer bias complicate our ability to learn and grow because our brains automatically maintain our self-esteem by sliding the blame away from ourselves when we make mistakes. In the case of performative activism, someone telling us that we’re not doing enough is bound to make us defensive. Still, actor-observer bias gives us a natural tendency to be hypocritical: even though we tend to blame our own shortcomings on outside influences, we also tend to judge other people’s actions as due to their own traits. Understanding this type of bias is crucial when we look at the ways in which we perceive and interact others, especially in a world that’s increasingly politicized, prone to cancel culture, and permanently documentative through the internet. Like all other biases, checking our actor-observer bias when we get defensive about our mistakes will help us correctly identify whether our mistakes are due to our own habits, behaviors, and ways of thinking, or if they truly are due to a bigger systemic problem. Spoiler alert: when it comes to most big -isms, it’s probably both.

Performative activism isn’t only present in our own circles. Companies inundate us with ads that sell us social justice for the low price of complacency, and separating the brands that use their platforms to elevate marginalized voices from the brands that capitalize clicks for cash becomes increasingly difficult with strategic marketing. Lou Stoppard outlines the danger of corporate performative activism, especially performances where language intentionally frames these corporations as our friends and allies: “[B]rands are not human, they cannot “stand with” us, or “listen”, their bodies cannot be harmed in protest. The risk is not life or death; it is bottom line.”

Leslieann Elle Santiago (@energyelle) shared her experiences as a Black assistant manager at Reformation. Her Instagram post went viral, and the company’s CEO resigned. At this time, it remains to be seen whether Reformation will take actionable change under their new leadership.

Tre Johnson calls it out for what it is: “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.” In his article, he makes the powerful argument that reading is one of the most common tactics that performative allies use to “address” racial killings. While it’s true that information is important, and that performative activism thrives off of social niceties rather than knowledge for the sake of knowledge and action, Johnson points out that these book clubs dwindle into false promises for change. It’s an interesting point to consider when it comes to larger institutions like the education system.

Schools, universities, and academia are tied up in all sorts of bureaucratic rules that make it difficult to change the system. Even granting this allowance, though, academic institutions fall back too often on the law of the instrument, a cognitive bias where a familiar tool is used to resolve every problem. Coined by Abraham Kaplan and Abraham Maslow in 1964, the law of the instrument offers insight into why performative activism typically aligns with certain categories of “action,” such as book clubs or discussion groups to “open up spaces for dialogue” when addressing issues of oppression. This cognitive concept is also known as the law of the hammer—and as the name implies, using the same tool over and over again to address any issue, regardless of fit, is bound to be problematic at one point.

“Trump always thinks he nails it.”

 

This summer, Annie Lowrey wrote an article for The Atlantic about performative environmentalism. Like the feeling of “wokeness” that performative activists get a kick out of, performative environmentalism is for ourselves, not for the planet. Unfortunately, corporations have taken advantage of this feel-good phenomenon to the fullest, and their strategic decisions to push the blame onto the individual instead of taking responsibility for the impact of their own actions are (have you guessed it?) a form of performative activism in itself. As Lowrey points out, drinking your coffee from a mason jar isn’t going to save the environment. The numbers that really need changing are only possible if change happens at the governmental level, both through government investment and government regulation. Still, Lowrey argues that while individual action is insufficient, the collective work of individuals is crucial in pushing our communities, corporations, and governments to take action.

Social psychology research on environmental matters shows a lot of monkey-see, monkey-do effects: If one house installs solar panels on their roof, neighboring houses are more likely to install solar panels on their own roofs. Seeing your friend share a post about defunding the police to their story might make you more likely to share the same post or a different post about abolition to your story. In these cases, it’s possible that the collective efforts of individuals, even if performative, can pressure corporations into taking action. However, these “actions” may be designed to appease a crowd rather than to alter their foundation. At this point, the detrimental nature of performative activism emerges. When performative activism tapers off, it fails to generate the long-lasting support or change of public perception that is necessary for systematic change in how corporations run their businesses. More importantly, if the majority of our communities fail to continue to demand change, then the government and overarching institutions are unlikely to restructure their age-old policies and systems.

Is all of this information feeling overwhelming? Maybe you’re thinking that Hamlet should have been asking “to do or not to do?” instead. Or maybe you’re thinking about how silence is violence and you’re starting a new existential spiral. I won’t lie—writing this post feels performative. I’m cognizant of how all of this information isn’t new, that writing this post is easier than actually making change, and that yet, the information that I’ve laid out here isn’t something that everyone is aware of, even if it feels like it is or should be.

Real activism is hard. Performative activism permeates our everyday lives and is an easy trap to step into if we don’t pay attention. Yet learning from our mistakes and actively checking ourselves and others is crucial if we want to start making real change and offering tangible support to others around us.

At the end of the day, thinking about whether you’re doing the “right” thing isn’t going to help you or your community. Check your biases. Pay attention to what you’re processing. Elevate the voices of others by stepping back and working from behind the scenes. Our cognitive processes are designed to help us respond to and take action in our world, and if showing is better than telling, then doing is better than showing.

 

Resources for Action

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

https://issuesintheworld.carrd.co/

https://www.instagram.com/colbymutualaid/

… and more.

 

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References

Greijdanus, H., de Matos Fernandes, C. A., Turner-Zwinkels, F., Honari, A., Roos, C. A., Rosenbusch, H., & Postmes, T. (2020). The psychology of online activism and social movements: relations between online and offline collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology, 35, 49-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.03.003

Kaplan, A., Maslow, A. (2018). The Conduct of Inquiry. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315131467-1

Kristofferson, K., White, K., & Peloza, J. (2014). The nature of slacktivism: How the social observability of an initial act of token support affects subsequent prosocial action. Journal of Consumer Research. https://doi.org/10.1086/674137

Lewis, K., Gray, K., & Meierhenrich, J. (2014). The structure of online activism. Sociological Science, 1, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.15195/v1.a1

Lowrey, A. (2020). All That Performative Environmentalism Adds Up. Retrieved 2 November 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/your-tote-bag-can-make-difference/615817/.

Phillips, H. (2020). Performative Allyship Is Deadly (Here’s What to Do Instead). Retrieved 2 November 2020, from https://forge.medium.com/performative-allyship-is-deadly-c900645d9f1f.

Stoppard, L. (2020). When fashion brands become activists. Retrieved 2 November 2020, from https://www.ft.com/content/f6cda7a8-a4d2-11ea-a27c-b8aa85e36b7e.

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