Ethan Z: From compassion to action, from action to knowledge

information alone is insufficient to provoke action

Truer words are seldom written. It’s common for the activist-y among us to argue that if people just knew the facts about, say, a genocide in Africa, they’d be moved to stop that terrible situation from happening. But this is demonstrably not true.

In a wonderful post, Ethan Zuckerman writes about his friend Evgney Morozov, who says that most online activism is “slacktivism.”

The examples he offered at a talk at Ars Electronica were, to me, compelling ones – a Facebook group dedicated to “saving the children of Africa” with 1.5 million members and a total of $8,449 in donations; a psychology experiment in Denmark that demonstrated people’s willingness to sign onto an online protest against an imaginary injustice.

But Ethan writes that even if such actions don’t effect the change they are seeking, they can — like thousands of Twitter users turning their avatars green in the wake of this summer’s Iranian elections — encourage people to pay closer attention to things they never would have cared about.

When reading all this, I thought of Susan Sontag, who, contradicting her younger self, wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others that facts alone aren’t enough to move people to action.

Yet — facts can be turned into compassion, and compassion “needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” Ethan ushers this thought into the Internet age, asking, “If the inability to act makes us bored, cynical and apathetic, is it possible that doing something – even something that’s ultimately ineffective – could keep us engaged and compassionate? If so, is there an interplay between action and information-gathering that could turn a story into a movement that builds public will?” 

This is a kind of cycle of change: Facts spark compassion, which in turn sparks action; the action is keeps us going, looking for more facts to turn into compassion.

Somewhere in this post, Morozov’s slacktivist critique and Sontag’s younger self are resolved. The result is one of the smartest analyses of modern activism I’ve read in a long time.

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