While house hunting recently, I strolled through an upscale, though approachable neighborhood full of younger residents – the millennials and post-millennials who define and drive much of today’s political debate. The leanings of the locals was made clear enough between the proliferating collage of lawn signs, bumper stickers and fluttering flags.
They wanted me to “Stop hate!” Before I could promise to get right on that, they insisted that violence had no place in their homes. They were big fans of abortion, bigger critics of Israel and still eager fans of Biden and Harris even months after their election.
The flavors of the day were rainbows, BLM logos and that “Coexist” image made of various religious iconography. These were social justice champions, and they wanted the world to know about it. In fact, one has to wonder if the world knowing about it is really the sole purpose of all their public objections.
There was a time when men and women rose up to take the lead in driving societal movements that changed the very character of their nations. Stepping forward into frightening and life-threatening prominence when circumstances called on them, these common people became extraordinary heroes without thought of where the path of social consciousness might take them.
Some of their names are known to any school child – Mandela, Gandhi, King, Chavez or Anthony. Still many more remain unknown because what mattered to them was fighting for their beliefs and achieving their goals – not calling attention to themselves and their participation.
Today’s ongoing age of narcissism makes certain we’ll never see their like again. Modern political movements are merely paths to the aggrandizement and promotion of their members. Our 21st century brand of activists follow a cause only so long as their comfort will carry them and often bail out for the next meaningless pursuit once their selfie gets snapped and their tweet well-tagged with the most up to date sloganized drivel.
It takes no real courage to include the justice cliches of the day on a social media profile. The only thing someone risks when spending an afternoon marching with like-minded people carrying a sign while posting photos is a blister on a tired heel. It requires only the emotional and intellectual depth of a dog’s water dish to claim a social conscience today.
Take a look back to the American South of 1961. The Montgomery Freedom Riders risked their very lives to fight for the end of racial segregation. Young men and women of varied backgrounds suffered and bled for their cause. Most importantly, they won the fight.
Today, their more bloodless descendants wouldn’t risk missing a midterm exam or break away from binge watching Netflix to shake up the status quo – unless there was some serious adulation involved. Worse, the stated goals of the day, such as the aforementioned “stoppage of hate,” are so vague they’re impossible to accomplish in any recognizable way. Instead, the ends today’s activists claim to seek are really just the means to get them in front of smartphone cameras.
These paper-thin copies of yesterday’s civil rights heroes want the eyes of the world on themselves first, leaving the cause itself to trail along behind, picking up the crumbs of awareness spat out by the feasting spotlight seeker. As they carry their poorly painted protest signs, it’s difficult to believe too many of them invest their time working for any cause or dig deep into their wallets to offer practical support. It better serves their purposes to work overtime in calling attention to their gushing compassion and unfathomable generosity of spirit.
One might say there’s no harm done if young poseurs want to play make-believe freedom fighter for a few days. If they seek to portray themselves online as a champion for justice via social media, they have the right to do so. However, the cost in sociopolitical terms can be enormous.
Since opposition causes are now predominantly fodder for self-promotion and lack any true emotional or psychological commitment, there’s no energy driving them. Once the egomaniacs exploiting current events secure the hit counts from the self-aggrandizing public they seek, the protesters tend to go off the boil. They need time to languish in self-love for their awe-inspiring sensitivity before wandering over to whatever cause celebre will bring in their next set of Instagram followers.
The news cycle also contributes to this succession of limp agendas. For a while, a given nationwide crisis or tragedy – such as last summer’s cross-country riots following the George Floyd murder – will kick up ratings, encourage clicks and sell a pile of newspaper subscriptions. With a little help from politically polarized networks and talk radio, the news revenue pot gets an adequate stir. The moment such reports stop firing folks up enough to invest in a given story, it’s time to move on to something else. Nothing changed. Nothing accomplished. It’s simply on to the next.
The result is an atmosphere of passing fancies masquerading as important political causes. Since the path of least resistance insists it’s easier to pretend to take meaningful action than to lay out the time, sacrifice and risk of genuinely getting involved, today’s delicate, entitled young people dance to the tune until they tire of it and move on to the next bit of fuss like toddlers distracted by a new toy.
Any entity standing in the way of peace or progress must be very much tuned into all this time-stamped social justice cosplay. They know there’s no character involved. There’s no sense of resolve. There’s no real consequence if protestations are largely ignored. So, the powers that be write a few checks, shoot a few pandering PSAs and offer a compassionate head tilt until the faux-outrage dies down again.
Most tragically, the impotent song and dance that stands in for actual activism in 2021 increases meaningless noise while further crippling actual advancements. Not one hungry child eats when somebody takes a selfie with a sign. No homeless person finds a bed or receives treatment because a flag stands in a front yard. No immigrant gets a job because a Twitter account carries the right hashtags.
Concerned human beings who might be willing and able to fix some of those problems – even on some small, local scale – miss a genuine opportunity to do good because they’re distracted by everyone love bombing them on Facebook.
It leaves us to wonder if those human rights heroes of the past would have fought so hard if they knew who would follow them into battle in later years. We have to believe those courageous men and women were made of stuff strong enough to keep them in the struggle, even if they knew their descendants would be so eager to waste the freedom they secured.
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