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The Dangers of Armchair Activism

By Reed E. McConnell

Not so long ago, the internet was inundated with tweets and posts containing the phrase “KONY 2012,” a reference to the most recent campaign of Invisible Children, an American nonprofit organization. “Kony” refers to Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of a rebel group that recruits child soldiers. Though seemingly well-intentioned, this campaign raised a great deal of well-deserved opposition due to both the long-standing controversy about Invisible Children’s credibility as a nonprofit and the way that Invisible Children chose to carry out the campaign. The controversy over the campaign also raises the larger question of the effectiveness of the sort of activism that KONY 2012 promotes, commonly known as armchair activism.

KONY 2012 encouraged people to take three actions: watch Invisible Children’s video about Kony, donate money to Invisible Children to receive a bracelet and information kit, and share the video with friends and tell as many people as possible about Kony and his band of child soldiers.

While the video does inform the viewer about Kony, the only action that this information can be translated into is donations to Invisible Children through the purchase of a bracelet kit. The problem with this course of action is twofold. Firstly, this money will not necessarily go toward helping child soldiers, or even to a good cause. Invisible Children has long been viewed with skepticism by the activist community for its extremely high administrative overhead, which leaves only about 30 percent of its earnings for programs on the ground. It seems that the money you spend on that bracelet kit is more likely to go into Jason Russell’s pocket than toward helping a child in East Africa.

The second problem with this course of action is that it allows the viewer to regard herself or himself as an activist who has done something noble and who has seen it to its end. It enables complacency, as instead of encouraging further reading and self-education on the topic or introducing the viewer to other organizations that deal with the issue of child soldiers, Invisible Children presents a self-promoting course of action and presents it as a solution. Once the viewer has shared the video he or she is a Good Samaritan and, perhaps more significantly, he or she is done.

It is never good when people are conditioned to expect that activism will make them feel good about themselves because it often doesn’t. Effective activism that creates lasting change takes effort and is often very frustrating. In fact, if an action is shiny, prepackaged, easy, and does not require any research or other sort of effort on the doer’s part, that is probably a sign that it is not going to be highly effective. If we hope to make a difference, it is essential that we are critical of such representations.

Armchair activism generally supports Band-aid solutions. One popular company that advocates for Band-aid solutions is TOMS, a shoe company that donates a pair of shoes to a child in Africa for every pair bought. Band-aid solutions are definitely necessary in their own right: systemic change takes time, and in the meantime, people still need to eat. If a child is hungry, he or she doesn’t care whether the food is coming from a sustainable local infrastructure or whether it comes from an aid group abroad. But TOMS doesn’t provide food—it provides shoes, which aren’t necessarily a pressing need in the lives of the people to whom they are given, despite TOMS’s insistence that they are.

The reason that TOMS can afford to offer the two-for-one deal on their shoes is that the shoes are cheaply made in developing countries. TOMS insists that the shoes are made for fair wages in good labor conditions. However, since there are no concrete guidelines as to what these fair wages and good labor conditions are, my guess would be that TOMS would be not be able to provide workers with the sort of wages that they would be legally compelled to provide factory workers in the United States.

If an organization like TOMS seems too good to be true (you get a pair of cute shoes and also get to help a child in Africa, which is basically one big starving country!), it probably is too good to be true. And if you’re surprised that you can help stop an African warlord from your divan, that surprise is probably not without cause. Armchair activism can be very effective in raising money and generating petition signatures, but we must realize that taking a small action like signing a petition does not excuse us from further action. We are not done. We must be wary of the ever-present dangers of armchair activism—complacency and self-righteousness—as we go out into the world hoping to make a difference in the lives of others.

Reed E. McConnell ’15 is a Crimson editorial writer in Greenough Hall.

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