An Era of Lazy Activism?

Graduation season is upon us! It’s a bittersweet time of year, one filled with goodbyes, excitement, and FedEx boxes. It’s a time to celebrate academic accomplishments, and, accordingly, the ritualistic spectacle of a graduation ceremony is unparalleled.

This year, my own graduation took place a few days following the disastrous Oklahoma tornado, and as we prepared to walk in our cap and gowns, the tragedy was undoubtedly present in all our thoughts. Many of my classmates expressed sympathy and support on social media for the tragedy and its victims – generally accepted as genuine sentiments. But some reactions included an insinuation that the time taken to make a status or tweet would have been better spent donating money or being otherwise proactive in helping.

I couldn’t help but think they had a point. There seems to be no practical reason to write an essay-length status expressing condolences or to post photos of the damage. These often come across as cases of overboard sentimentality, devoid of purpose. To me, it was particularly salient amidst the pomp and circumstance of graduation. I often wondered why we insist on wearing odd-looking caps for the sake of tradition. And why wear black robes in the Baltimore summer? Trust me, those things do not breathe. How much sweating can one graduating class do before we can forgo symbolism? Have we lost our sense of functionality to display?

A similar issue broke out surrounding the recent Prop 8/DOMA Supreme Court hearings, during which a tide of red equal signs appeared on Facebook. It’s easy to mock these gestures as the worst of lazy internet activism (Surely the Supreme Court is counting the number of equal signs on Facebook before making their decision!). But these pictures were not for the sake of persuading the Court or even to incite any specific action. Instead, they were a show of support and a sign of solidarity to those who would be most affected by the Court’s decision.

Massive Tornado Causes Large Swath Of Destruction In Suburban Moore, Oklahoma

Likewise, it may be true that sharing a touching photo of Oklahoma rescue efforts does nothing to contribute to its aid; there are plenty of ways to help directly. But at the same time, let’s not be so quick to scoff at these gestures. Just as the uniformity of our graduation robes (read: heat conductors) signifies our camaraderie as a class and university, people can appreciate emotional support and well-wishes. And it seems to be human nature to try to offer some solace in the face of tragedy, even if it is through a Facebook status or through posted pictures. Action is certainly not to be undervalued, especially if we could all be Carrie Underwood. But one does not have to take away from the other. Practicality is not everything. And expressions, words, symbols of unity are certainly not nothing.



Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.