“There’s a gap somehow between empathy and activism. ”Sue Monk Kidd
The internet is a tiring place at times. This amazing global resource for connection is often used as a platform for attack with keyboard warriors poised for the slightest opportunity to launch into their manifesto, however uninformed it may be.
Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old who started the global climate strike movement, is a divisive figure when it comes to any internet comment section. In spite of the incredibly positive global movement that has started out of one girl’s solo school strike a year ago in Sweden, people feel the need to attack and tear it down. One glance over the comment section of any video or post about Greta shows how truly vile and ignorant humans hiding behind a computer screen can be. Most of these opinions are uninformed and it shows in their arguments, ignoring the solid backing of scientific research, or even the fundamental message she is trying to share.
I had personal experience recently upon posting some photographs on a female solo travel community that I really love. I had taken a solo trip to Northern Thailand and, after A LOT of research, chose to go to an eco-lodge that is part of an NGO working with women vulnerable to trafficking in the region. They also work with a neighbouring elephant camp to promote ethical elephant care in the context of captivity. They rent the elephants from the elephant camp, rescuing them from previously abusive conditions to enjoy a healthy, relaxed life in the haven of the eco-lodge.
Tragically, today there are almost no wild elephants existing in Northern Thailand – there is no natural habitat left for them. Over the course of the last century, humans have destroyed migration paths, chopped up jungle with roads, electric fences and industrial agriculture. As a result, organisations like the place I stayed aim to give to elephants the best life possible and, through transparent marketing also educate their guests on what ethical elephant care looks like in the context of captivity. If managed carefully, the Thai tourist industry can ensure that large numbers of elephants will remain cared for and protected for the foreseeable future.
I detailed my research and my genuinely positive and special experience at this place in my post on this group, but it became clear very quickly that I didn’t need to go into as much detail at all, as those who wanted to attack clearly were not going to read anything I wrote anyway. It became evident that, no matter what explanations, research backing and information I gave, the image of a human with an elephant was like lighting the blue touchpaper for a vocal minority on the group. (I emphasise minority however – for every 20 positive comments on the post there was 1 negative.) I did try to engage with some of the posts but it swiftly became tiring and, thankfully, the moderators stepped in and turned off commenting on my post. They messaged me personally to let me know and said that there were multiple commenters that violated a lot of rules of the group (specifically respectful interactions) and that most of them were not reading my post fully before jumping in so for my sake they turned off comments. Needless to say, I thanked them. You see, the thing is, I had researched thoroughly beforehand. I am not choosing to blindly walk into a harmful situation for animals. I am a responsible traveller and I made sure everything was as they had said and, actually, gained even more insight into their approach while I was there. I realised that there were other factors at play here and it had very little to do with my post.
Former President Barack Obama recently commented on ‘wokeness’, ‘call-out culture’ and virtue signalling saying,
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly.”
“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
He went on to say, “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.”
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”
“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
You see, we all do it. We all virtue signal and get riled up on the internet – every single one of us is probably guilty of it in some way. And we should all feel confident to stand up for what we believe in and to let our voices be heard.
But there is a difference between call outs for call outs sake, and genuine engagement and conversation. Within my own post about the elephants, I received a few direct messages from people who wanted to talk about their own experiences and ask further questions. We talked respectfully and our conversations were truly enlightening and helpful. None of these people immediately jumped online to tear me apart, but instead chose to message and chat with me directly about their feelings and we had a very meaningful exchanges. I truly appreciated this and it reminded me of the positive engagement that can come out of this global community we call the internet.
That is the difference between virtue-signalling and call-out culture and genuine activism and engagement.