Activism Fatigue: A Cancel Culture Exposé

Activism Fatigue: A Cancel Culture Exposé

Thanks to the cocktail of cancel culture, and an “at all costs” social progress movement (aka wokeness), many of us are blindly out there on social media post-crusading for cause after cause that we likely know very little about. This forced focus on anything and everything we're told to be activists for is resulting in widespread Activism Fatigue --

Read on for Joel Primus's commentary on how fatigue is leading to apathy and what apathy is leading us to.

A blog about activism fatigue may seem, in itself, a sneaky form of activism. It is not.

Well, maybe it is a little.

The spirit of this post is to offer commentary without supporting a cause. Okay, maybe there is a small cause -- A plea for an armistice from the incessant culture wars that, at their worst, are tearing apart our societies and, at their least, is just plain exhausting.

Before we get to the “exhausting” part, I’d like to provide a framework for how most of this activism works and what’s behind it. To do that, let me start by telling you a story about the Baptists and the Bootleggers...

For about 13 years, there was no happy hour in America. You couldn’t grab a cold one or pretend to describe the terroir of the Pinot Noir you were drinking. Well, you could, but that would land you behind bars. Prohibition was in full swing and drinking was illegal.

The activists driving this were the Baptists and the Bootleggers. For moral and religious reasons, the Baptists wanted to keep America dry and the Bootleggers championed their righteous cause because, naturally, that was a lot better for the business of black-market booze.

In other words, the Bootleggers leveraged the virtues of the well-meaning Evangelicals to boost their business (because, let’s face it, people still wanted to drink). Meanwhile, our friendly local politicians leveraged both groups to empower their own political positions. On one hand, they could virtue signal by legislating the moral high ground of the Baptists while taking backdoor payments from the Bootleggers and turning a blind eye to many of the speakeasies.

Let me summarize this as it relates to today:

  • The modern digital activist, like well-meaning and championing the cause de jour on all their social media is the “Baptist.”

  • The Bootleggers are the special-interest groups (and for-profit corporations like, say, Anheuser-Busch, Black Rock Pzifer or Exxon Mobile) that back the non-profits and various causes that consumers support and the groups financially benefit from.

These seemingly unlikely coalitions of minority interests backed by big corporations then lead to legislation (i.e., prohibition) that rarely represents the needs of the majority of the citizenry (i.e people who like to drink).

Again, like the Baptist in our story, the core fundamentals of the activists supporting the causes are usually just and moral, aimed at advancing society to a seemingly better place.

Today, however, it’s a different story.

Thanks to the cocktail of cancel culture, and an “at all costs” social progress movement (aka wokeness), many of us are blindly out there on social media post-crusading for cause after cause that we likely know very little about. Of course, there is both good and bad in why we do this.

For starters, I believe most people have some measure of compassion for humanity and want to do the right thing. Therefore, I can respect and understand the desire to project our activism through a sense of “the right thing to do.” For better or worse, we also like to show everyone else that we’re compassionate and in sync with the social injustices of the world. At the very least, we don’t want to be seen as someone who isn’t. This is now called virtue signalling, and it paves the way for all kinds of bad outcomes.

Posting the wrong thing during these social justice moments could have you cancelled (i.e., lose your job, de-platforming, demonetization, character assassination, shadow bans, and, at the very least, an uncomfortable conversation with a friend or family member over dinner). Fear of cancellation leads to either jumping on the social-justice bandwagon or self-censoring, often before you’ve had a chance to really understand the latest cause you’re posting about. As a result of this all happening so fast in our digital age, we’re put in a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

Believe me, I know this first hand.

Back in 2020, customers were encouraging a company I was leading to jump into a social medial conversation about George Floyd, police brutality and support the Black Lives Matters non-profit organization.

I was hesitant.

This was clearly a very important moment, and while I had some understanding of the broader social justice issues at hand, I didn’t know anything about the organization we were being asked to support. Determined to learn more, I started making phone calls; however, my partners were now pushing us to jump on this, and eventually, against the advice of my friends who were closest to the issue at hand and knew the organization, we did. We made t-shirts, aligned with activists and became active on social media.

It backfired badly.

My inbox exploded with messages from customers who saw things differently and said we didn’t have the whole story (i.e., they were police or had police in their family). Customers thought we were virtue signalling. Others accused us of trying to capitalize on human rights issues. Essentially, we had asked our brand loyalists to adopt our newly expressed political views, which were not specifically “of our business or brand.” To make matters worse, it became apparent very quickly, as my friends had advised, that the Black Lives Matter organization, shall we say, did not exactly allocate the resources as advertised. You bet we heard about that from our now-former customers as well.

It was a spectacularly ignorant move. We should have let things play out longer, learned more about the organizations and even let our customers educate us on their views (which would have been a great use of social media). Not only were we the Bootleggers, but we were also the Baptists.

The moral of the story is that if we don’t know all the details and deeper truths of a cause, we probably shouldn’t join the crusade.

More than likely, digital activism is just a Trojan horse for a capitalist cause or government agenda. In adjoining ourselves, trumpeting every cause that has a viral post on Twitter or Instagram or Tik Tok, we become almost like caricatures of ourselves, acting out the theatre of corporate interest while looking for some kind of a karmic catch-all, to check off all the boxes in some attempt to claim moral virtues without actually doing anything.

We live in a scam-ridden and righteous age where the virtuous and virtue signaller are mostly blurred. By now, we all should know that virtue signaler doesn’t actually give a fuck about anything but themselves. We know it’s a lot less about affirming the causes than ensuring how we look to our peers. It’s activism drenched in arrogance and fear that achieves nothing more than radical individualism, chaos, fear and a restless society. So long as you stand for the “right” things and are against the “wrong” things, you’re allowed to be a citizen.

Constantly listening to people parrot social causes, while they are being vigilant to not say or do the wrong thing, is why more and more people are exhausted.

Virtue signalling is why Bud Light and Target recently lost billions of dollars of revenue, value and formally loyal customers. It’s not what they supported, but how they did it that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It’s like every business that now displays a sign on their front door that states they are a business “for all.” Okay, excellent, but are you saying you weren’t before?

Obviously, I’m just being cheeky as I do understand the positive intent behind such a sign. Many social inequalities must be, and are being, healed. There are a great many social and human rights issues that still need to have a light shined on them, and they need to be fought for.

Does this pervasive method actually work? Or, is it antithetical to its own objective?

What do you think?
A) Yes, it's effective/persuasive
B) No, it's an empty gesture/distraction

We now see Starbucks managers and employees in the Midwest in aggressive protest with each other about how to celebrate PRIDE month. And as host of HBO’s Real Time Bill Maher said, and I’m paraphrasing quite a bit here, ‘The grandpa who just came around on gay marriage is back to being labelled an intolerant bigot. Give him a chance. If you don’t force him and call him names, he’ll keep coming around.’

We actually LOSE important progress in the bombardment of activist causes and the “either you’re for us or against us” mentality. What happened as a result of Bud Light and Target are examples of that; another example is shared by journalist and political commentator Douglas Murry who said:

Most Americans supported gay rights when it meant equal rights. In 2015, the year gay marriage was legalized across the country, 57 percent said they were in favor of it, and last year, 71 percent of Americans said they believed same-sex relationships were morally acceptable. But now there’s a backlash to gay rights, and I wonder if it’s rooted in Americans’ sense that something more than “love is love” is going on here. A recent Gallup poll shows a seven-point overall drop in Americans’ belief that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable—it’s down to 64 percent. The drop is larger among Republicans (56 percent to 41 percent), but holds for Democrats too: we were at 85 percent support last year; now we’re at 79 percent.

Like all change, social justice progress happens on a continuum. Right now, as Murray points out, we’re experiencing the law of diminishing returns.

Is this so surprising?

No, not when people are exhausted from constantly being made to feel like intolerant bigots as they try to understand and adapt social progress to their valued traditions.

Intolerance and bigotry cuts both ways.

To go back to our Baptists, even if we know drinking is bad for us, we don’t want to be shamed and legislated into skipping our after-work aperitif. That, ‘I’ll tell you what’s good for you’ big brother antics tends to get people's backs up.

Unless, of course, that’s exactly where corporate and government interests want us to be.

Is this not exactly how the politicians leveraged the Bootleggers and Baptists?

Of course, they know the microaggression and irritating comments from their army social justice warriors are breaking us down through toxic polarity, constant vigilance and decision fatigue. Fatigue leads to apathy. We throw our hands up and say “I just can’t keep up. I give up”

I suspect we all know how that story ends.

Stand firm for something, not everything. Understand what you're actually an activist for. And beware of the Bootleggers stealing your just and moral causes for corporate and power gains.

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