Op-Ed: What have you done?

Sunday, January 22, 2017 - 12:54pm

Do you remember how, for many Americans, Nov. 9 (the day following the election of Donald Trump), was marked by feelings of extreme bewilderment, disbelief, fear, sadness and resolve to do more — to not be complacent in a regime of racism, to work doubly hard for civil rights for all, to protect and empower one another, and to get involved in civic life and civil disobedience and volunteering? These resolutions were so prevalent, among both liberals and moderates, as well as even a few Trump voters who realized the pain of their marginalized friends. They were almost ubiquitous that second week of November. It is now days into the Trump administration, and I’m asking you resolution-makers: What have you done to fulfill these well-intentioned passionate promises to do better, to be better, to make change? What have I done?

It is so easy to talk about politics. I tweet about my frustrations about the political climate at least once per day, but confronting my tendency to talk rather than act is difficult. Social media can be a really powerful tool for organizing meetups and changing cultural norms. (Think: changing profile pictures to reflect support for marriage equality and organizing the Women’s March on Washington this January, both primarily via Facebook).

There is some evidence to support this form of “thin engagement” also sometimes termed “slacktivism” as a method for involving traditionally uninvolved communities in civic life, as well as promoting offline action from simply more acceptance and visibility of the LGBTQ community to putting boots on the ground. For example, social networks have contributed extensively to the structure of the Black Lives Matter movement, giving staying power, personal narrative and structure to an online and offline phenomenon. Black Lives Matter, however, and similar movements with an online presence are of a different order of coordinated magnitude than a Facebook post you push out to your typically like-minded friends or a snarky Tweet shared with a sympathetic audience.

The latter are not meaningful actions. Confusing these brief exchanges for something that will productively, actively contribute to safer lives for Americans is dangerous — it makes you feel like you’ve done something; it allows you to pat yourself on the back as a budding activist, and it ultimately will leave no minds changed and no lives improved.

Hillary Clinton won this election’s popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. I’m not here to relitigate the election, but I am here to say that nearly 3 million more Americans of voting age are dissatisfied with the overtly discriminatory and nearly kleptocratic administration that just took office. If you consider yourself a member of this dissatisfied bunch (and you don’t need to be a Democrat or a liberal to do so), you’re not alone. Collective action is more important now than ever before.

If you made yourself a promise on Nov. 9, consider that the follow-through on that promise is not just for yourself but for the millions of non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, non-male, non-able bodied, immigrant, Muslim, lower-income and uninsured people (and every intersection between these groups and more). When you express your disdain for Trump or for any of the -isms or -phobias he espouses without taking action, you are not keeping good on these promises and you (and I) are betraying those who need us. We are betraying each other.

As former President Barack Obama stated back in 2014, “When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer, that's when real change comes.” He also noted at his recent appearance in Ann Arbor the famous Brandeis quote, “the most important office ... is that of the private citizen.”

Let’s not be lazy in 2017. Let’s recognize the role that each one of us individually plays in our democracy. We are citizens and our civic action matters and it starts at home, with you and me. You should be informed about local and state politics — this is a place to make a change for the people you know and see every day. Educate others if you can — invite them to accompany you to city council meetings, get to the polls or call your representatives together. Talk with your family members and friends with whom you agree and disagree and learn, while standing up for others. You should be donating your time, if you are able, to both local organizations, regional chapters of national organizations and national organizations themselves that fight for women, against systemic racism, against homophobia and transphobia and for fair, just civil rights for all and an independent press. Do it with friends if you want. If you have the means to donate money, you can do that too.

And if you do all of that, or some of that, or any of that, it may become easier to sleep well at night. You can’t fight fascism on Facebook alone. But if you involve yourself in civic life, if you honestly commit yourself to a cause, if you keep good on your promise to the millions of people who need it, feel free to keep posting.

Madeline Nowicki is a senior editorial page editor.