Every day on Facebook, Twitter and the like there are hundreds, even thousands, of videos slowly crawling from newsfeed to newsfeed. Some are funny, some heartwarming, some inspiring, and some are intended to draw attention to the political or human rights issue d’jour. Of the latter, each video is made by a creative and motivated person or group of persons whose intention is to capture us long enough to motivate us to some kind of action.
Unfortunately, in many cases, that action stops with clicking that “Share” button and passing it on to the rest of our peers. While spreading awareness of an issue is important, awareness alone is not enough to truly make change. After all, the intention of creating awareness is to inspire people to action.
I want to talk about Awareness Vs. Action, and I want to talk about a study done by Dr. Peter M. Gollwitzer which found that folks who speak out loud about their goals are often less likely to achieve them. I want to apply this theory to community activism rather than our personal goals because I feel there are overlaps.
Gollwitzer’s study shows that when someone sets a goal in their head, that goal comes with an urgency as it’s, of course, incomplete. However, once spoken aloud to peers, the goal-setter is likely to receive encouragement or validation of their goal or idea. Once that encouragement/validation has been received, their brain is tricked into feeling one step closer to completion, even if no true action has been taken. This decreases motivation to continue because the urgency is quelled and, in many cases is enough to stop the forward motion. (I would argue that this is not true across-the-board because polling and feedback are often helpful in creating more decisive and focused action, but of course nothing is ever wholly true of everyone or everything.)
Macolm Gladwell, in this watch-worthy lecture provided by the University of Ontario, raises another interesting point about how spreading awareness can actually be counterproductive — a distracting device which actually removes the focus from the core issue and shifts the burden of responsibility from those with the power to make change to those who would benefit from having done so. His example was breast cancer awareness. He purports that the true issue at the core of breast cancer morbidity is lack of health care for those with the highest risk of death. By spreading “awareness” about the need for regular breast exams after the age of 40, the burden of prevention shifts to the populace rather than the health care system, which should be available to those so they can use that awareness to take action.
It is my fear that the type of armchair activism that’s arisen in these days of social networking is dampening the level of true action being taken by those who might otherwise motivate to make real change. Sharing a viral video on Facebook can give one a false sense of completion, of having done something about the issue at hand.
Signing an online petition is not the same as making a donation, as manning a phone bank, as volunteering with a local organization that directly benefits those in need. In some ways, it can be a passing-of-the-buck — an assumption that someone out there watching the video or reading the article will do something about it. Preaching to the choir of friends and peers is not true action. I am not saying that it is a useless form of activism — far from it. Awareness is one key element of creating social change. However it is not enough.
I encourage those of you still with me at the end of this post to challenge yourself to choose one issue or cause this month and contribute something tangible. Mentor a queer youth, write a check to a worthy organization, volunteer at a food bank, organize a fundraising house party, write a letter to your senator, tell a random stranger they are beautiful. Take all the beautiful awareness that this vast social network of the Internet has given you and turn it into an actionable item. Learn. Act. Repeat.