We don’t have the chops for that kind of thing these days. We’re too cynical to risk looking like idealistic idiots working too hard for something that will never happen. And with good reason: we’ve been burned. We’ve worked hard on things before, we’ve invested in political movements, but we’ve never seen real change.
These days our boycotts are more conversation pieces than activism. We like them to have cute hashtags. We talk about them while we’re waiting for the train. We’re not so concerned with impact.
See, more than actually creating change — an outcome we’ve more or less written off — we want to feel like we’re doing something. That homophobic exec really pissed us off, so he doesn’t get our money any more. And it feels good! Plus it’s really easy because there are tons of alternatives to everything, so you don’t have to actually give anything up.
The takeaway here isn’t that we’re too cynical to work passionately for a cause or too selfish to make real sacrifices, even if those things may be painfully true. Our boycotts may be exercises in vanity, but they are interesting because they tell us something about the way humans are motivated. We are more likely to take action when we simultaneously feel a personal connection to a cause, and a concrete sense of the harm being done.
It has to be both. When we feel a personal connection, but the mechanism of harm is vague or abstract — like Congress failing to address the unaccompanied minor situation — we respond with apathy in order to shelter ourselves from confronting how disempowered we are. When the mechanism of harm is concrete, but we feel disconnected from it — like police brutality for anyone who’s community isn’t terrorized by it — we respond with cynicism in order to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to act.
But when we feel both, we suddenly find the energy that society needs to take steps forward. If we can figure out how to channel that into something more meaningful than tweeting #ChickFilGay, it’s going to be awesome.