A term that gets thrown around a lot

Is performative activism real?

Pro Palestina demonstraties Foto: DUB
Students protesting for Palestine at the University Library. Photo: DUB

The phrase “performative activism” or “performative leftism” gets thrown around a lot, especially around campus, with irritated tones and rolled eyes. The main assumption is that some people are not genuine in the care they portray to the outside world about social issues. I have a few issues with this concept and the discourse around it, mainly that it has grown to the point of being reductive.

There are important discussions to be had about how to educate one’s self on issues regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc. As being not bigoted is becoming more and more of a social norm, with some people labelling it as “political correctness”, people who show support to the causes surrounding these issues on social media have grown. On social media, the term "performative activism" tends to describe someone who posts about these issues but doesn't take corresponding values into their real life. Virtue-signalling through social media and using these issues to further one’s own image are conversations to be had. However, the label of performative activism has outgrown this into a criticism of one’s activities in real life. 

I have seen people who go to Palestine protests be called “performative activists” because they “don’t know what is going on” and people who hang Ukrainian flags getting criticised for not knowing the history of the region. At this point, it just becomes a way of gatekeeping political involvement and is a bad-faith view of other people’s intentions. Yes, a level of political awareness should be supported and ignorance should be called out. But if the person is supporting the cause that you also support, how can you think of that as ignorance? Clearly, they have found the cause important enough to take time out of their day to go to a protest. The idea that they do this for lesser reasons than another person is quite discriminative. It should be our goal to inform when needed and raise other people with us, rather than disregard their engagement and put them down. This is another way of virtue-signalling, by showing that you are more virtuous in your political actions than other people. 

Another issue is the intellectual elitism that feeds into this. In leftist circles, there is a gatekeeping that centres around reading theory or a level of informational prowess. Someone who calls themselves a feminist can be disregarded based on their knowledge. It is reductive to think that reading feminist texts is a criterion to consider someone a feminist, not to mention it puts too much value on academic knowledge and too little on genuine care. One’s academic background or access to resources is directly tied to socioeconomic class. In every social movement, some people just tag along, it is true that they should be further integrated but not everyone has the ability or opportunity to do so. If we want to educate, instead of infighting within a movement, we should strive to educate the ones who are making the issue worse.