Sophie Gorman explores what to do when the news and social media make activism feel all too much.
“Doom scrolling” is a term that gained popularity during 2020, meaning consuming a large quantity of negative news online all at once. It’s hard to avoid this feeling of the world being a terrifyingly unjust place when the past year seems to have highlighted tragedy after tragedy. Being cooped up either at home or at student accommodation (especially as a first-year like myself) has been a very isolating and stressful experience. Covid has made it far easier to retreat to our rooms, swaddled in a blanket - burrito style - while using technology endlessly for studying, working, socialising, and entertaining, rather than using it as one component of a well-balanced lifestyle.
2020 was the year of the rat. But, also of the infographics, reminding us all the myriad of ways to act locally - petitioning, protesting, and educating. Many of us have urged not to harass, patronise or abuse with messages which are so spoon-fed that it can feel very disheartening that any effective change can be made at all. This sentiment isn’t helped by the internet magnifying injustice onto a larger, global scale, making combatting it seem almost impossible. Constant reminders across the news and our social media feeds asking us: “Are you paying attention to the government’s involvement in Yemen and handling of the pandemic? What about the locust infestations? And what about Myanmar, Poland, Belarus, the Amazon Rainforest…? Why is nobody paying attention?!”
This information overload, especially in the year we’ve had, can be detrimental to our mental health. Whether it’s being reminded that people have no problem dehumanising you, or for others, being overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of these problems you feel powerless to solve. For many, it’s easier to ignore, be complicit, and benefit off of others' pain, while declaring you live in a liberal society, where war is peace, and ignorance is a strength. Because why believe in a cause that isn’t your own, which may loosen your own grip on power?
This is why it’s useful to decentre your ego when learning about issues. To be able to admit that you’re a small cog in a larger machine, which maintains its power through exploitation. By admitting this, you can understand how you exercise (as well as are restricted from exercising) power in different aspects of your identity. I, as a White woman, can see the parallels between the beauty standards I’ve grown up with and skin lightening products used in other countries, or can compare the way that racism and sexism are similarly framed as insignificant, because of phrases like “all lives matter” and “not all men”. On the other hand, I can also recognise that as a White immigrant woman, I don’t have to face the same xenophobia that non-White immigrants face.
As individuals, we aren’t solely responsible for the system that we live in, whether we capitalise from it or are exploited by it. You do not need to be aware of every genocide, injustice, and news story. You do not need to be like Greta or Malala, at the forefront of every crisis. All you can do is be empathetic to others and treat them respectfully whether in your job, or if you have time, by volunteering at student organisations or attending events like vigils and protests for causes you feel need to be supported. It’s not rocket science – being an activist begins with empathy, for which the foundation is listening. And everyone can listen, even if they don’t want to. That’s the issue we’re facing - everyone has a voice, but to change, people must be willing to listen.
If you have the privilege to not experience this discrimination, it’s your responsibility to listen, amplify and act alongside those who are oppressed. And it’s perfectly normal if you feel overwhelmed or as though you’ve messed up in the past by treating topics like misogyny or racism inappropriately because awareness of your own past actions is just a reminder of your progress and the importance of humility. We need to normalise changing your views when confronted with new information; to normalise personal growth. Unfortunately, this awareness and “personal” growth will often have to be initiated by people who experience discrimination first hand, who are simply more knowledgeable about their experience and narrative. You may feel overwhelmed, but I can guarantee they feel even more overwhelmed. Listen to them, and heed what they say, and by all means ask, but don’t expect them to be your one-stop-shop for advice on how not to be racist-homophobic-misogynistic-ableist. Don’t play the victim if it’s too much for them to answer sometimes.
Just because there is injustice doesn’t mean it’s inescapable – in the past 50 years women have gained more reproductive rights; in the last decade gay marriages have been legalised in many countries; and currently, the first female vice president of the US is in office. That would be unimaginable a century ago. So, there is hope - but it only comes with continuous change.
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