Apologies for the lateness of this week’s path: ethic. Over the weekend and early this week, I was busy finishing a story to submit to an anthology which goal is to raise awareness and in honour of the hundreds of missing girls in Nigeria, whose story has been so prevalent in the news recently. Sales from the anthology will go to Not For Sale, an organisation which fights against slavery and human trafficking.
Many people first became aware of the story of the missing girls through social media, and the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has now been tweeted over one million times. There is extraordinary outrage against the injustice of this act, and the movement to try to get these children back to their families has highlighted the plight of so many children, women and men who are trafficked and sold into slavery or servitude every year.
It’s very easy to imagine that slavery is something that happened in the past, but just a few weeks ago, police raided properties in Perth, my former city, where people were being housed in cramped conditions and paid very low wages. Many of them were here illegally, and so would have been reluctant to tell authorities, if they were even able to contact them in the first place. The fact that this was in Perth surprised me, as it’s a comparatively small city, with low crime and a very laid-back lifestyle. So if it can happen there, it really can happen anywhere.
That brings us then, to how we stop it.
Of course, our governments can take action. They can put political pressure on foreign governments. They can pass laws in their own countries and enforce them. They can link aid money to compliance with a standard of human rights. Granted, it’s possible that none of these steps will have any effect on the perpetrators, but it is at least doing something.
The individual, the person on the street, on the internet, does not have that kind of influence or power, but we do have the power to protest, and protesting can send a very powerful message. It has also changed somewhat in recent years.
It used to be the case that in order to express our opposition to something, we would need to rally together and get onto the street, to march on the appropriate building or to collect in a central place to hear speeches by other stakeholders involved in the movement. The right to protest is considered such an integral part of our modern culture that it is a yardstick by which we measure how open and egalitarian is a society.
Protesting is different now. Previously, if we felt strongly about something, we would write a letter, and post it. Possibly to a politician, or to the person who had wronged us, or perhaps to the newspaper. If we felt really strongly about something, we would organise a march, or demonstration. We would walk side by side with other like-minded people. We would be a mass of individuals, on a common journey. There would be camaraderie and we would feel the physical presence of other bodies; we would make noise and become a crowd.
Of course, that still happens. But nowadays, we seem more reluctant to go out and protest on the street. Most of us prefer to protest on the internet.
There are advantages to this. Being able to rally people from around the world to a cause can only happen if we have the tools with which to do it. The internet provides these tools. We can communicate with friends—and strangers—almost instantly, and most of the time, we’re able to reach many more people than if we were just relying on word of mouth, friends and acquaintances to spread the message.
However, I’m not convinced that it is an improvement on what we had before. Certainly, we are able to exert pressure on our governments through social media. It is a very quick and effective way of gathering together huge numbers, and numbers is something that governments understand. But there is something very ‘real’ about protesting in person. It feels extraordinary. It feels like a verb.
Sharing a link on Twitter, or liking a post, or signing an online petition just does not have that same organic, groundswelling feeling. It saddens me that we are more likely to tweet or change Facebook status to show that we’re behind a cause, rather than getting outside and being part of a protest, in person.
‘Clicktivism’ or sometimes ‘slacktivism’ are the rather disparaging terms for online activists. It allows people to be involved, on a very superficial scale, in many causes at once. But even though I can acknowledge the validity of the criticism, I’m not so sure that we can brush it aside so easily. Of course, a more cynical observer would argue that people are able to present as advocates for whichever cause they’re supporting, without really ever having to devote any real time or energy to it. But I think that online activism definitely has a place. I think if we dismiss it, we’re dismissing its potential power. Those who dismiss activism in social media and who long for the ‘good old days’ of protesting in person are ignoring a very important fact.
It’s possible to use both, at the same time.
Protesting is different now. Whereas before, protests would spread via news media, now, it flows via the grassroots. Movements such as 350.org use social media to spread the word about their real-world actions, and then post about them on social media, generating more interest, and a greater base. The #BringBackOurGirls/BringBackOurDaughters campaign spurred protests which prompted interest from other people not local to the issue. There is certainly something to the claim that clicktivism is the lazy person’s activism. Whereas before, those people would simply be armchair activists, now they can go one step further and demonstrate online—but only online.
On the other hand, for those who would stand up against injustice, social media is just one more tool in their arsenal. Protesters have become clever in their use of it. They enlist celebrities. They magnify voices. They put pressure on those in power to show that something needs to be done.
It may be that our actions in this, and every such campaign are still piecemeal. In our small corners of the world, we’re still not able to always effect immediate change. But not doing anything is unthinkable. Clicking a link is the start–following through with real action is the next step. We need to make slavery and human trafficking part of the everyday conversation. We need to remember that these children have families who miss them and are hoping, every minute of every day, for their safe return.
These girls may not yet be home, but for them, and the next ones, and the others who are taken against their will, the more global pressure on the Nigerian government, and governments around the world, the better. Let this campaign be the beginning of a deeper empathy for all those who are trafficked, everyday. Let this be the beginning of a heightened global awareness of the underbelly of slavery, and let us shine a bright light onto it, to expose those who would perpetrate it. Let us keep that light burning until every act of slavery is obliterated.