The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

Slacktivism and Acedia

By Nancy Myers I receive daily email invitations to put my name to an appeal: Reform health care. Slow climate change. End poverty. Save a species.

Easy enough, just hit return. You don’t even have to give money although you are always asked.

I’ve been calling this “slacktivism” for some time and thought I may have invented the term, but if so I wasn’t alone. Wikipedia traces it back to at least 2001. It’s such an obvious elision of “slacker” and “activism” that many people have made the connection.

Wiki says, “Examples of activities labeled as ‘slacktivist’ include signing internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands (‘awareness bracelets’) with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.”

I have done all of these things because it costs nothing and it might help, I tell myself, though probably not. But it can’t hurt.

Or can it? Substituting slacktivism for real activism encourages sloth. Even though sloth is identified as one of the seven deadly sins, we think of it as harmless couch-potatohood. Ancient monks, however, called it by a harder-edged name, “acedia,” which has been lost and found over the centuries. Acedia means, literally, “lack of care.” They also called acedia “bad thoughts.”

Modern psychotherapists will tell you the dangers of spiraling, self-reinforcing negative thoughts. The contemplatives recognized the connection between idleness, discouragement, negativity, and paralysis and called it deadly.

Acedia is not clinical depression; it’s an affliction most of us share in some form. Read Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me. You may identify your own version of acedia somewhere in her account.

My personal definition of acedia is twofold: 1) deep internal resistance to doing what I know is most important; 2) not caring enough to do my very best.

While engaging in slacktivism does help overcome some inner resistance to doing anything at all, it falls short in the second category. It does not involve putting forth my best effort. I think that is why it doesn’t make me feel better in the way that is essential if you’re going to do any good in this world: energized, determined. It doesn’t stop the downward spiral toward despair.

As I write my email dings. It is an invitation from the Indigenous Environmental Network to watch video of an action at a Canadian tar sands mine. I click in and see clips of Greenpeace activists at work, stopping the operation of a three-story-high vehicle in the open pit. They sound energetic, a little excited. Whether the action will make a difference in the long or short run is moot: they are putting forth their best effort. No slacktivism here.

I don’t climb on giant cranes; I write, cultivate relationships, work with a great team of colleagues, care for a piece of the earth, and so on. Those things energize me and excite me. They call forth my best efforts in the big project that has plenty of tasks for us all: the earth and human future. I know I am not doing enough and that it will never be enough. So I need to keep doing whatever keeps me from sliding into sloth.

As for those online petitions, they are part of the mix. If you look at the best of the wired-in organizations, you’ll see that what they do does not stay in the virtual ether. Most combine instant mass petitions with on-the-ground meetings, demonstrations, and media campaigns. Check out MomsRising for a great example of how that mix works: a sophisticated, navigable web site: local groups; lobbying; mass action; and, yes, online petitions—delivered in person. You can see that mix at work in their report on the Lily Ledbetter Act improving pay equity laws. Kudos for great reporting.

So I’ll keep signing online petitions. I think of it as helping other people do the change work that energizes them: organizing, watchdogging, giving voice.