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We Need Virtue Signaling

By Nina I. Paneque
Nina I. Paneque ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

I never attended a protest growing up in Miami. My parents were thrilled. It’s not like they are against political activism; they just really hate the idea of me being involved in what they perceive as a rowdy mess of rambunctious rebels. After the pandemic began, their fears only worsened as “death by plague” was added to the list of ways I could be offed while protesting. That’s why, when I told my parents I was going to a Black Lives Matter protest within my first month of being here at Harvard, they were shocked.

“You’re going to the riot?!” my father questioned, “You would do that to me?” Yikes. Though I promised to take care of myself and reminded them that the protest really was supposed to be quite small, no amount of assurance was enough. And the truth is, I saw where my family was coming from, or at least part of it. Though their fears were a tad exaggerated (my mother unironically sent a text that read “I hope you live to tell the story”), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus.

Still, I knew I had to go. After posting an Instagram story that lamented the persisting inequality in the justice system, staying home was out of the question. I needed to be at the protest in person if my concern was to appear genuine.

At the time, I honestly felt that the only way to prove my dedication to the cause was to show up, banner in hand, and march as part of that powerful crowd. I struggled — like many others on social media — with doubts about the effectiveness of what I was posting. In the face of unrelenting police brutality, my Instagram story just felt woefully inadequate. The popularization of “performative activism”— a highly pejorative term — further caused me to question whether I was doing any good. Or worse, whether I was actually part of the problem. This was never just a protest for me. It was my first real chance to prove that I meant what I said.

And I wasn't just trying to prove that authenticity to myself.

We place people on social media in two categories: those who actually care, and imposters trying to boost their social capital. I refused to be part of that second group, posting a #blackouttuesday post and then doing . . . nothing else. Yeah, “woke.” Rather than feeling grounded in empathy and candor, these posts tend to come off as shallow. Undertones of self-congratulation taint otherwise creative points. And those viewing begin to ask themselves to what extent these sentiments are even real. In a digital world where genuine concern is hard to mark, insincerity reigns supreme.

But what if we saw these posts differently? Instead of belittling that #blackouttuesday post for everything it’s not, let’s appreciate what it is: an act of solidarity. If it’s still seen by others, the intentions behind it wane in importance.

People are aware of shifting tides; when they see an argument repeated to them over and over — the same post again and again — they will begin to consider it. The sheer volume of these messages can influence the zeitgeist. And every post adds to the visibility of a movement. That’s powerful.

How are we to tell who actually means it and who doesn’t? And if someone’s platform is promoting an important cause, why don’t we assume the best intentions?

Turning social media activism into a witch hunt is counterproductive; it only has the effect of lessening the number of voices speaking on an issue. And in our current moment of acute polarization, that’s really bad. We need everyone we can get, doing whatever they’re willing or able to do.

We can no longer afford to base our judgements of sincerity on specific actions we deem authentic or truly committed. Setting these bars not only ostracizes those who mean well, but also fails to take into account the different circumstances of every life. During a pandemic, some people, not least those with dangerous comorbidities, really can’t always risk that which might “legitimize” their tweet. Forcing them to do so only fosters exclusion.

I’m ashamed to admit that my presence at the protest that night wasn’t solely driven by concern. I went to the protest because I didn’t want to appear performative, making the supposedly selfless action into an act of performance anyway. I wanted so deeply to avoid appearing hypocritical that my actions actually became hypocritical.

Given another chance, I’d try to demonstrate the courage this moment demands — not allow myself to be guided by the fear of what others think. I’d go to that protest because Breonna Taylor’s murderers were not charged with her murder. I’d go because we have a system that desperately needs to be reformed. I’d go — not because I posted about it on Instagram — but because these things matter to me, whether others know it or not.

We cannot continue to allow concerns over how our activism is perceived to inform our involvement. And we cannot further repress our outrage for fear of seeming spurious. There are too many for whom the consequences of these trivialities are grave. For those who can demonstrate commitment through physical forms of activism, like me, do. Go out. Contact your representatives. Work within your community. Vote.

But for those who can’t, or can’t all the time, don’t let that preclude you from trying to effectuate change in whichever way you know how. So what if your social media post looks a little performative? Do what you can, however much you can. Something is better than nothing.

Nina I. Paneque ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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