Do We Need Personal Reform Before Revolution? Advice for Budding Revolutionaries

Slacktivists and Champagne Ideologues: Brighton Grace gives his insight into the paradoxes of campus politics, the allure of the collective, and what it might take to foster a more authentic activism.

It’s the 3rd of March 2020 and once again I’m finding new ways to procrastinate. I’ve been busily following the Super Tuesday results for the US Democratic primary, refreshing the delegate counter on FiveThirtyEight the entire afternoon. With fourteen states up for grabs, I was excited to see Bernie Sanders extended his lead in the race, having supported him all the way back in the 2016 primary. However, as the afternoon went on and the results rolled in, my enthusiasm quickly waned. Super Tuesday, a name that fittingly makes the event sound like some sort of finale to an American sports tournament, had been undoubtedly won by former Vice-President Joe Biden. Disappointed text messages were exchanged between a few mates and I who are fellow Bernie supporters, trying to console one another.

Beyond asking myself if I should be using the time to catch up on university readings, I started to look for exactly what went wrong; Sanders has vocal support from young people online, as well as the odd 1960s socialist academic, and his self-described “revolutionary” platform and policies strongly correspond to pressing issues that will effect millennials. However, according to the New York Times, only 15% of voters in Texas were younger than 30, with California and other states following a similar trend. The disparity between the youthful support I had seen of the Sanders campaign both on social media as well as at rallies, and the underwhelming turnout revived a thought I have long held.

Authenticity seems to be one of the most persuasive parts of any argument, even for the most adroit at rhetoric.

These issues revolving around young voter turnout are indicative of what I see as a larger issue for zoomers and millennials: that our generations are ones that are noticeably politically-minded to the point where “revolution” is a quotidian phrase, but are also ones that are not always politically-active in the most compelling or impactful ways. ‘Slacktivism’ is a pernicious trend that has been discussed time-and-time again, and whilst I think it is right and important to criticise it, I would prefer to focus on two other issues. The first issue, which I believe slacktivism to be a symptom of, is that of young people adopting political standpoints or participating in activism simply because they are popular trends. The second, is that of activists or young, politically-minded people failing to develop a worldview and a consistent application of beliefs.

Mainly, in order for these causes to sustain momentum, they will need well-informed and genuine spokespeople: not just the leaders of movements, but every participant involved in them. Something that I have noticed recently is the common responses to news interviewers from climate change activists. These activists attending rallies echo the sentiment of such leading activists as Greta Thunberg, stating “listen to the experts” or “look at the science”. I initially found these mantras refreshing, with experts being foregrounded and given a greater voice, however, I also found that many people who use these phrases know little about the climate science itself unlike the people who coined them. Unfortunately, opponents to climate change often come prepared with countless statistics to support their claims, even if these statistics are not from reliable sources, and their quest is made easier when activists are unable to effectively respond to their argument. Just because something like climate change and the need for actions seems universal, doesn’t give us an excuse not to be as best-informed as we can be on a given matter. This is not to say that the majority of prevailing ideas espoused by younger generations aren’t necessary or worthy to pursue. On the contrary, they are both significant and urgent, but activists and young people should better understand the causes they align with to help strengthen them.

The above problem would be largely resolved if our society didn’t see the expression of political beliefs, especially progressive ones, as a means of gaining popularity; authenticity seems to be one of the most persuasive parts of any argument, even for the most adroit at rhetoric.

I believe that in order to best argue for and gradually implement these changes we need to ensure that both authenticity accompanies the words of activists and that movements are not co-opted for mere social status or popularity.

Part of the second issue of not having a consistent political or social philosophy is also down to a focus on conforming to trends rather than political beliefs. One of the things that struck me when meeting new people at university was the contradictions they possessed between the media they consumed and their political beliefs. Multiple people, many of whom identified as progressives and feminists, cited Ed Sheeran as their favourite musical artist, despite many of his songs seeming to objectify women and failing to communicate their perspective, such as in “The Shape of You”. Another example is hearing young progressives say they enjoy Dr Dre without acknowledging that much of his back catalogue features misogynistic and problematic lyrics. I don’t want this to appear as if I am being pedantic, but part of activism is becoming more analytical of the world around you, and challenging entrenched values, a key skill in building a better future. Sometimes it seems that although these values can be found in pop culture, they go unchallenged as people don’t want to risk being a contrarian against what is popular, since they often level criticism at older songs with similar treatments of female voices. 

Aside from the medium of music, there is also an inconsistent application of beliefs in regard to consumerism due to an adherence to trends. Take for example the image of a young activist organising a logging protest. They’re planning out all the details whilst wearing clothing from a trendy label and eating cereal for breakfast, unaware that their clothes were manufactured under unethical conditions, and the cereal brand was owned by a company contributing to deforestation due to using palm oil in its production process. Some could argue, under a pessimistic lens, that there is no point in boycotting these brands as there will still be enough consumers to keep them afloat, and that governments are still the best line of response to remedy these issues. Though this point may have merit, however, it assumes that this person in the example was even aware of the contradiction in the first place. I have been frequently guilty of such buying habits in the past, and for years I was completely ignorant of how many of the practices of the companies I bought from ran against my own personal beliefs. It is far more difficult to initiate and see change achieved when you don’t have a consistent personal philosophy of your own, and without an instinct to do your own research.

Alas, it seems all too often that caring about the collective is conflated with desiring attention from said collective.

There is a plethora of worthy and necessary causes for young people to get behind. From climate change to deforestation to wealth inequality or education, the examples are endless. However, I believe that in order to best argue for and gradually implement these changes we need to ensure that both authenticity accompanies the words of activists and that movements are not co-opted for mere social status or popularity. Further, in order to cohesively consider our own visions for the future as young people, developing a cohesive worldview and consistent application of beliefs is also pertinent. From walking around Uni as a first-year student, it is inspiring to see how many young people want to commit themselves to various political and social causes and shape the future they will someday inhabit. Alas, it seems all too often that caring about the collective is conflated with desiring attention from said collective. Equally, activists or speakers without a genuine stake in, or knowledge of, an important cause, can undermine crucial efforts for our future. To follow the old adage, we should not follow trends, but rather set ones for ourselves to follow into the future.

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