One of the most interesting yet infuriating tendencies that the internet has allowed to flourish is the policing of certain kinds of engagement and activism. Far too many people think of progressive activism as something that revolves around being out in public at a protest, march, or demonstration. As someone who has been involved in progressive circles for a long time—and who has also not attended an in-person protest in nearly two decades—I do not see a distinction between so-called “armchair activism” (sometimes called slacktivism) and “in real life” (IRL) activism. Painting those who do their activism work online with the armchair activist/slacktivist brush leaves certain people out—especially people who have disabilities, chronic illness(es), mental health conditions, or other health issues that make IRL activism a challenge.
The last protest that I was able to attend before I got sick in late 2005 was a 2003 San Francisco-based demonstration against the Iraq War. Even though my disabilities were not as severe then, I was exhausted after the march and I had an allergic reaction on the way home. Going to a protest now, with all of my health issues, seems unthinkable; my chronic pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia make it tough for me to even get out of bed on my worst days. Showing up to a protest where I’d need to walk for an unknown period of time (possibly aggravating my plantar fasciitis), surrounded by people who might get irritated at me and other “slow” walkers, and where places to sit down would probably be in short supply is not my idea of a fun time—even if what is being protested is important.
I’ve been writing about gender, chronic pain and illness, and disability identity online for over a decade, and have had my work on these topics dismissed time and time again—mostly by people who are anonymous—because writing, Tweeting, and engaging on social media regarding disability is apparently not “real activism.” (My favorite instance of this occurred in 2010, when a person incredulously speculated about why I wasn’t doing “real activism” like envelope-stuffing in support of then-President Obama, missing the fact that activities involving repetitive motion, such as envelope-stuffing, are not recommended for people with fibromyalgia). As if people in unending chronic pain can just decide to rally, ignore their pain, and get out there. If you tell people in chronic pain that they should risk their health to go to a protest or demonstrate against something, you are effectively telling us that showing up for a protest is more important than our health.
A false division of online activism and “real” activism also discounts the many effective hashtag campaigns, networking, Twitter and Instagram threads, and social media signal-boosts that take place across various platforms. The #CripTheVote hashtag and ongoing Twitter chats created by disability activists Alice Wong, Gregg Bertran, and Andrew Pulrang is just one example of the ways in which online activism is being reclaimed and improved by disabled people. Hashtags like #CripTheVote aren’t “just” about clicking the “like” button on a Facebook status or changing one’s avatar color to support minorities. It’s about inspiring actual inclusivity and change. It can be easy to dismiss social media activism as “slacktivism” if you’re not familiar with how it works, but such a dismissal also privileges people whose bodies are nondisabled, or who can be sure that their bodies or minds will not fail them in the middle of a multi-hour protest, demonstration, or workshop. Online activism can make some types of progressive activism more accessible to people whose disabilities otherwise make protesting or demonstrating in-person difficult, or even dangerous.
These days, I am a seasoned internet person who has faced harassment for “controversial” opinions that don’t reflect the ableist majority, I am no longer afraid of being called a slacktivist. Dismiss my writing as armchair activism if you want. But I’m going to keep doing it and pushing toward change.