From Slacktivism to Activism: Can blogs be relevant?By: Andrew S
I often hear people juxtapose their “online” activity with what they do “in real life.” Recently, I’ve begun pointing out that the opposite of online isn’t “real life,” but “offline“…our online worlds, I argue, are very much a part of our “real” worlds — our online identities are part of our prism of identities.
I don’t think that many folks are convinced. And with what we tend to do online, I can see one reason why people wouldn’t think of their online activity as “real.”
Even in our (mostly) pleasant Mormon blogging world, every so often, someone like Steve Evans will point out what seems to be so often forgotten: the Bloggernacle will not save you. And as Steve alludes throughout the post, one reason that the Bloggernacle will not save you is because only real-world relationships will — and of course, the Bloggernacle isn’t the “real-world.”
I am trying (but not really doing that well) to have conversations on why different contingencies of the Mormon universe seem reluctant to talk to one another. The orthodox, faithful believers of the Nothing Wavering aggregator and elsewhere tend to eschew — sometimes very pointedly — association online with those they believe to be too critical of the church.
I have heard that the reason they avoid spaces they believe are too critical is because they don’t want to always have to hash out the foundation of their faith. They want to discuss from Square Two: given faith in Mormon truth claims, where do we go from here?
An issue that has intrigued me, however, is the idea that some faithful folks don’t participate in blogs like these because they find it frivolous. When we talk about controversial issues, what are we doing? How are we helping anyone? The contention is not just that one can’t argue his way to faith (which would be because faith is categorically different, not because faith has no arguments in favor of it), but that such argument distracts from the real elements of faith: service, action, and dare-I-say: activism. To quote from our very own co-blogger Bonnie:
The fact is, Andrew, the Bloggernacle doesn’t represent the active church. There. I’ve said it. It’s a very small subsection of people. Most of the people I know and work with IRL do not have a clue about what goes on in the ‘nacle. They aren’t idiots, or ostriches, they simply don’t explore their questions this way. This is not a good statistical sample.
And the gospel cannot be understood without living it. That’s what I mean by reductionist. You can’t debate yourself to God or to faith or to understanding. You are talking apples and oranges with someone who is doing the Alma 32 experiment. And there is reason that Alma did not waste any time with the rameumptomites; they were not humble.
The Active Church?
There are two ways one could take the first line I quoted from Bonnie. Perhaps the bloggernacle doesn’t represent the active church because it is not comprised of people who are active. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would assert something like that.
However, I think Bonnie is saying that even if the Bloggernacle is mostly comprised of active members, it cannot represent the active church because its participants are in other ways unrepresentative of that active church. And on this point, I agree — and I also think that is why Steve writes that the Bloggernacle will not save you.
While I have argued in the past that those people who go to church represent a minority of those people who are Mormon, the fact is that those of us who identify as Mormon in some way, shape, or fashion, and who talk about it on the internet are certainly a minority. While we — those who are unorthodox, uncorrelated, disaffected, post, liberal, or otherwise — may make the case that we have numerical strength within the church (e.g., “everyone is cafeteria Mormon”)…our process of discussing issues and debating points (especially in online venues) is certainly not any sort of statistical norm.
“Drop by, sit at the back and observe, or sit at the front if you wish,” Otterson writes. “You won’t have to do anything — no kneeling, no recitations, no collection plates. But feel free to talk to the members. Ask them about the responsibilities they hold. Talk to the teenagers. Attend the classes after the main worship service.”
Otterson quotes Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, who recently told a group of prominent journalists: “If you want to understand Mormonism, you have to understand the ward.”
“Writing or reporting about Mormons from a desk and a keyboard without a field trip to a Mormon ward is like covering Congress from Kalamazoo,” Otterson writes. “You have to be there. You have to feel the pulse. You have to understand the perspectives, the nuances, the motivation deeply rooted in belief. Then you’ll be better able to explain what makes Mormons tick so enthusiastically.”
On many of the online venues I visited, there was an outcry that Otterson was trying to de-emphasize the internet because on the internet, he can’t control the message. (To be honest, in any given ward, he can’t control the message completely either — which is why I suggested that journalists attend LDS church on fast-and-testimony meetings and see what people say then.) But the point is that the online meta-conversation is in some ways to far disconnected from the lived experience.
I personally agree with Matt that the church should embrace non-official LDS voices who are speaking up (and yes, it’s often on the internet) in non-official capacities about Mormonism. Joanna Brooks’ story is not exactly the story you would get “on a field trip to a Mormon ward,” but Brooks is considerably more able to cross the divide between Mormon and non-Mormon publics than most folks are able too (and that’s probably why Jon Stewart had her on the Daily Show rather than Michael Otterson.)
…but then again, Joanna Brooks is not just an internet slacktivist.
Slacktivism and Activism
Part of the reason why I write this post is because of several conversations I had with people and several things I heard at Sunstone.
Firstly, I will point out that I think that my attending Sunstone already shows that the online and offline worlds are linked — the reason I attended Sunstone was because a friend I knew online set up Sunstone panels from online and I was roped into the irresistible opportunity to meet all of the folks whom I had to that point only conversed with online.
Sunstone for me pointed out that the internet is a great gateway to offline, face-to-face interaction, if we will only engage. So, in some ways, it is not surprising that Mormon Stories (an online podcast) has led to local communities of support and live Mormon Stories conference (offline interactions). Various Mormon blogs have in-person get-togethers, bloggersnackers, meet-and-greets, and the like.
But more importantly, several conversations got me thinking about action and activism.
I think, in some cases, we blog fully wanting it to be safe. Fully knowing that there’s no accidental way for it to escalate into something more time-consuming. Main Street Plaza’s chanson has quipped that she does a lot of her Mormon-interest blogging precisely because it’s less stress than addressing real world problems.
After the Sunstone panel for which I was part (“Do Good Online Fences Make Good LDS Neighbors?“), several folks questioned why we spent so much time talking about J. Max Wilson. Is he important? Is Nothing Wavering important? Is the Bloggernacle important?
Each of these criticisms was tied to something of real-world import. Chanson juxtaposes blogging about Mormon issues with environmentalism, which should clearly have different levels of import to people. Chino Blanco (one person critical of the emphasis on Bloggernacle and J. Max alike) wrote extensively in the buildup to Prop 8, and even today, many of his comments about blogging are framed in reaction to seeing various Mormon blogging groups (such as many of the bloggernacle blogs) do little to nothing in opposition to that proposition.
When I say that Joanna Brooks is not just an internet slacktivist, what I’m saying is that, in contrast to the navelgazers in the blogging world, she plays in public, and generally on controversial issues. I wrote previously in “Mormon People vs. Mormon Church” about liberal and progressive members of the church publicly asserting a different narrative…and I think that Joanna could easily fit in too. The question isn’t whether liberal Mormons like Joanna Brooks are doing anything, but whether what they are doing is actually helping people within the church or doing them harm.
And the thing is…we could be theoretically doing the same.
For full disclosure, I actually didn’t attend the Sunstone session of this title (featuring many of the same session hosts)…Rather, I followed my friend Jon (who is practically an emeritus blogger at USU Reason’s blog) to the session Confronting Romney In the Streets: Grassroots Resistance to Capitalism and the Mormon 1%, as was hosted by Joshua Madson, Tristan Call, and Ashley Sanders (of whom, the only fragments I have left of her blog, Project Deseret, are articles on my blog referencing hers, and the Wayback Machine…so I guess she counts as emeritus blogger at her own blog!)
Let me just throw out the abstract for that session:
As US progressives, anarchists, pacifists, queers, feminists, immigrants, and other agitators challenge US empire alongside a revitalized global justice movement, radical Mormons face the challenges and opportunities of pioneering a distinctively Mormon resistance. In this session, we’ll discuss the many kinds of direct action that challenge empire: artwork, riots, dance, strikes, fasting, sabotage, and prayer. We’ll discuss the history and theory of mass mobilizations, the theology of collective redemption that inspires Mormons to challenge imperialism through shared faith, and upcoming plans to defy Romney’s war/austerity agenda.
That was a mouthful. But here’s the thing — the abstract to the session makes it sound a whole lot more academic than it actually was. In actuality, while there was a little bit of background information, the session didn’t provide much background at all…rather, most of the session was brainstorming. What can we do…perhaps right after Sunstone to act in distinctly Mormon, yet nevertheless progressive or anti-imperialist or (insert cause here) ways?
I will be the first person to state that I’m not that politically engaged of a person. I like the safety of the blogging world, and I like to make my topics frivolous and academic. So, the session really made me think things a bit differently, because now, I was thinking about action. And, in particular, how we can take the kinds of perspective that drive us to go online — since the reason we’re ultimately here is because there is something about us that is not sated each Sunday in church — back into the pews.
Throughout the brainstorming session, I wasn’t quite sure what sorts of “actions” would make a “distinctively Mormon resistance.” But over the session, I had a few such ideas:
- What drives us online is the idea that we cannot discuss our perspectives in church. We feel silenced. But this silencing and marginalization is a self-fulfilling prophecy — as fewer liberal/unorthodox/progressive/uncorrelated/disaffected/questioning members speak out with their perspectives, the less we will be aware that other such members exist in our ward. So, one solution is simple: we simply have to speak out.
- Nevertheless, I’m aware that speaking out can seem obnoxious. Like the expression, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” we need to build a sort of credibility or rapport. Stephen’s posts on being heard and on becoming a small-p prophet present best practices (but certainly not the only approaches) for gaining the entry-way credibility. In this case, service is the game. The thing is that service is something pretty much everyone agrees on — so why can’t liberal/progressive folks who are involved in politically agreeable causes (e.g., volunteering to help the poor is something that people on all parts of the political map) engage their fellow ward members on these tasks?
- To take a page out of the apologist’s book, why can’t there be a central repository where different issues of faith are addressed from a liberal/progressive point of view. The thing I got from the session is that Ashley, Tristan, Joshua, etc., are very comfortable aligning their politics with their religion, and many of the people in the group employed scriptures to their suggestions for organization. But on the average Sunday, will every liberal/progressive/uncorrelated/unorthodox Mormon have an awareness of these understandings of scriptures to offer in Sunday School? Apologist groups like FAIR grew from encounters in hostile environments where the same questions would be lobbed over and over…liberal and progressive Mormons face a similar situation in their own ward environments.
These are just a few suggestions that I was able to come up with. And I’m not that politically engaged at all.
What is the value of a blog?
One thing that the session did was make me start to reconsider what I’m doing with blogging. I am not opposing imperialism or helping to solve injustice. Heck, I’m not even helping members to better thrive within the church (or, on the flip side, helping struggling members out.)
In this way, I sympathize with my friend Jon: after the session, he noted to me that he found the entire session extremely depressing.
“But why?” I asked. What came to my mind was the guy who used the session as a way to pass out his By Common Consent fliers (not the blog); it had reminded me of what I had always heard of liberal political efforts.
But Jon replied differently. He replied that while Ashley and Tristan and Joshua had so much motivation and enthusiasm for activism, he didn’t feel motivated like that at all. While he wanted to be moved, and he liked a lot of what they were saying (the guy drives a Prius and was considering getting an equality sticker for it…I believe he settled with a “Drill Baby Drill” sticker for ironic purposes instead)…he wasn’t.
In some ways, I feel the same way. But since I am already writing, can’t I at least reconsider to what end I write? What am I trying to accomplish?