A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary on Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher and former professor at the University of California, San Diego. The documentary was about him, but it was his students I noticed.
Wildly optimistic about a revolution that could spark utopia, they marched, scheduled sit-ins and picketed to bring the troops home from Vietnam. They fought for academic and intellectual freedoms, as a Reagan-led board of regents tried to force Marcuse out of his seat by buying out his contract with the university.
Today, that drive for social change we inherited from student activists from the ’60s and ’70s hasn’t translated into action. Digital activism such as sharing a political infographic or re-tweeting a pundit’s sound bite just isn’t working out as well. The desire to create a better future is still there, but it is being lost in a crippling sense of defeat. Moreover, our generation’s cry for social change is fizzling out in a matrix of retweets and Facebook memes.
While some of us are being seduced by Internet-based activism, others’ drive for a better future is being negated altogether by jadedness.
If Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, we are seeing the best minds of ours destroyed by cynicism.
Our smartest peers project an air of nonchalance, distancing themselves from the issues that matter most. When the stakes get too high, they use cynicism as a defense mechanism to make things feel like they matter less and as a way of coping with the possibility of catastrophic failure.
There is little confrontation with their deepest worries, and they have much trouble admitting that their cynicism is a product of fear, not wisdom. My friends who are writers, artists or intellectuals are afraid to commit their powerful ideas into meaningful action, yet seem most anxious about how to make their actions matter most.
Because cynicism often masquerades as strength, the youth of our generation all want to be card-carrying members, especially as the world gets bleaker and the future seems more uncertain. Our classmates who are most well-versed in current affairs arrive at a discussion well-rehearsed in a rhetoric of hopelessness. Peers who have the most innovative ideas save their energy for sarcasm, dismissing social activism as a futile and ultimately unproductive venture.
Moreover, this generational brand of digital activism we’re most known for does little to enact meaningful change.
Social activists who don’t know where to turn go to social media. Likes, comments and retweets offer immediate feedback, allowing social media users to feel like they’ve done their part. Facebook and Twitter are valuable tools of social change insofar as they can relay a lot of information about an issue to a lot of people. They bring “awareness,” and sometimes they help with organization.
But that is typically where the usefulness of social media ends. Political posts give us an artificial sense of satisfaction though they accomplish virtually nothing. This false sense of accomplishment can be countered if one simply turns off the computer and has a live conversation with another person. The same compulsion to share a Facebook status about political dissatisfaction can be re-directed into physical actions.
Activism, if it is meant to accomplish change that is meaningful, needs to be visible to people beyond one’s friend list. It must be taken out of its digital sphere and done in public. Activism must been heard to rouse others into action and seen to inspire.
It starts with a little more hope.
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