Activism not Slacktivism

student protestors

My good friend Adam Ramsay had a piece in the Guardian the other day about student activism, putting forward his view that the main job of students is to save the world and have fun. Despite what many people think the two are not mutually exclusive.

I credit my time at university, and the people I met in that period of my life, with shaping my politics quite substantially. The groundwork may have been laid earlier – by compassionate parents and dinner table discussions – but uni was the time when I became more able to articulate what I believe in, and why.

People always think I’m joking when I say that I left school still believing that Karl Marx was a member of the Marx brothers comedy act, but sadly it’s true. (Quite how I managed an A in Higher Economics without knowing who wrote The Communist Manifesto, I don’t know, but there you go…)

By the time I graduated four years later, I had learnt so much more – not just about Art History and English Literature – but about the big wide world beyond the campus. Lecture theatres were all well and good, but it was in pubs and student flats, over black coffees and cheap beers where I learned the really important stuff.

The people I met at uni – people like Adam, who now works full time for the campaigning organisation People and Planet – were the ones who introduced me to debates around the Nestlé boycott, the Middle East, climate change, US politics, Fair Trade, trade unions, Scottish Independence and numerous other issues. And when you’re surrounded by people who spend their spare time shimmying up lampposts with campaign placards, or going door-to-door gathering petition signatures, it’s hard not to feel inspired by that. Their enthusiasm and passion were infectious; what a joy it was to be in the company of intelligent people who believed the world could be a fairer and better place, and were prepared to work hard to make that happen.

After graduating I was lucky enough to spend a year as the elected President of my Student Union. It was the hardest I’ve worked in my entire life, but it was also incredible fun. The work I did in that year – representing Edinburgh’s 22,000 students to the university, in the local community, to external bodies like the Scottish Parliament, and in the press – was probably not world-changing stuff, but it was important in its own wee way. We campaigned on issues that were immediately relevant to students in the city – like the cost of travel, accommodation and tuition fees. But we also campaigned on issues that were more about global citizenship; twinning our own union with one in the West Bank, lobbying the University to revoke Robert Mugabe’s honorary degree, and persuading other universities and unions to become Fairtrade.

Adam’s point about making campaigning enjoyable is an important one. No matter how serious the issue is that you’re working on, if you can’t bring some element of joy to the campaign around it, you’re never going to win. Whether that’s something as simple as bringing cake to meetings, heading to the pub after a long debate, or using humour in your tactical approach (one of my favourite campaign stunts involved sending a pair of flipflops to every Lib Dem member of the Scottish Parliament, emblazoned with a picture of their leader’s face, when they kept changing their mind about which side they were on in a crucial tuition fee vote), if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s an attitude that I think is easy to lose, as you get older, and the pressures on your time become more plentiful. Campaigning for or against anything starts to feel like a bit of a drag, just another item to squeeze onto the to-do list. It becomes a lot easier to turn to online activism – signing an e-petition, forwarding a campaign email, or writing a blog post. I am as guilty of it as anyone. But does that kind of slacktivism really achieve much?

Adam’s post has given me a bit of a kick. It has reminded me that campaigning is about building a sense of community, solidarity, and shared purpose. It has reminded me that campaigning is supposed to be fun. It has reminded me that although technology is a wonderful thing, there are a lot of things that can’t be done sitting behind a computer.

So I’m off to bake a cake. Find a meeting of likeminded people. Save the world.

I might even start a conversation about Karl Marx, now that I know who he is.

Who’s with me?

16 responses

  1. I am SO with you. This is partly why I’ve chosen the degree that I’m starting in October; its taken me this long to realise what it is that I’m really passionate about in life and I intend to get off of my arose and start doing something about it.

    Brilliant post, as usual.

  2. Wonderfully inspiring post. I was nodding my head reading ‘campaigning is about building a sense of community, solidarity, and shared purpose’ because that is so true. And the fun, as you say. Probably why they got Red Nose Day so right. My way of campainging is more personal, planting seeds, spreading messages, encouraging people to have a sense of ownership over their choices, helping them to feel like they really can make a difference in whatever they set their minds to–personal growth, helping others, etc, I’m the cheerleader from the sidelines rather than the fearless leader up front. We all have our roles!

    Will it be an earth shaped cake? 😉


  3. I wrote something a while ago in which I compared the effect of petitions on those in power as being like that of my neighbours’ car alarms on me-rarely more than annoying background noise. There is a place for online activism, I think, especially for those who for whatever reasons don’t have much mobility, but you’re totally right in that “hands-on” matters too. It might not be marching or campaigning, but even supporting local groups helps make the world a better place.

    Karl…was he the one with the glasses?!

  4. I would love to be with you, but looking after a 3 and 1 year old full-time has filched all my campaigning time! I really miss it, though, and will be back out there as soon as they’re older. My favourite job ever was when I was comms officer for a national campaigning group. We ate, spoke, lived and breathed the cause. And you’re right – it was the most fun I’ve had in years. I have some wonderful life-long friendships stemming from that job. Campaigning bonds you in a way that is unparalleled by anything else.

  5. I mostly regret not going to Uni for that very opportunity. I was vice president of my Higher Education college, and that gave me great experience of campaigning and protesting. I bunked out of Uni to go on tour instead, and have to say that luckily I inhabit the same end of the music world as both Riot Grrls and Billy Bragg, depending on which musical instrument I have strapped on, and as such managed to continue my political education hand in hand with my musical fun.

    I am almost as passionate as I was in my younger days, I just have less time to drink beer and debate it. One of the down sides of ageing is the ability to see just how complex many issues are, I was much more black and white in my youth, whereas now I can see the grey too. But I still believe is justice and fairness as strongly as I ever did!

  6. Brilliantly put! It’s time to stop feeling timid or embarassed about standing up and advocating change… and getting out there with a smile on.
    In my experience it’s easier finding like minded folk in reality than from behind a screen…but maybe I’m wrong?

  7. Great post and totally apt for me. I did politics at uni (including postgrad) and find that now I’m a SAHM my time is so limited and the issues I care about so varied it can all feel simultaneously crushing and sterile when just online. But it is still better than nothing, and I feel it’s important to ‘keep your hand in’ in whatever way works for you. Loving your blog as always 🙂

  8. You are so right about ‘mouse campaigning’ (my term for epetitioning) can only ever be a shadow of the true spirit of something that is essentially a collective activity. Yes, e-petitioning does have power, but if that’s all we do, we are losing out? I used to get involved in campaigns as a student (I can relate to your Uni experience) although Nottingham Uni didn’t have many, it was rather more middle class that yours it seems. And then I got into campaigning as a volunteer and then, joy of joys, got paid to do it with World Vision. But since having children, the sheer practicality of getting to meetings has changed those habits. I also believe that we can do so so much as consumers and how we shop, realising quite how powerful business is in this fight against poverty and injustice. But you’re right about campaigning needing to be fun – very true.

  9. Sorry, Ruth, I realised I added the wrong email address and contact details to the above comment. So if you want to reply, please use this one!! Duh. Luddite me. PS Looking forward to meeting you at Britmums. Will be coming to the Blogging for Change workshop.

  10. This was such a great get-up-and-go-and-do-it post. So full of energy and inspiration. I love your political/campaigning voice – so very easy to relate to. Can I join in once I have the novel finished? I have so much on the go at the moment :o). XXX

  11. I wish my Uni days had been more like yours, I learnt nothing of worldly use when I was there, I was obviously mixing with the wrong crowd. You inspire many people Ruth, don’t forget that.

    Mich x

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