The argument that social media activism is just slacktivism has been made one too many times. Every time there’s a new movement, a new hashtag — with it comes the slew of articles calling social media the saving grace of our generation and the responses arguing that these platforms simply absolve complacent users of doing anything actually impactful.
The movement surrounding the hashtag #MeToo is similar — there’s been an avalanche of stories written about just what it could mean. But in the midst of all the coverage are the actual statuses that started it all — all the deeply personal testimonies coming from women online, and the statuses that don’t give details and still state their presence.
And it’s this presence that this movement is all about — before the swelling crowd, before the analysis or the backlash. Because there is something callous about seeing this on social media — because after reading it, you’re left scrolling onto the next post, the next meme, the next eerily specific sponsored content. But that doesn’t negate the fact that first, for a moment you have to face the presence of something so common as to be ordinary for so many women, and yet so horrible as to be a secret in our collective consciousness.
Yet this week, I read an article that said this hashtag, this movement, is the worst of social media — because it takes all the pain, all the anger of the injustice, and because we can write about it, it dissipates it so we feel like something has been done when the world hasn’t moved one inch. But I disagree.
This movement is still young enough that I can remember the first status I read that used the hashtag, the confusion at what was happening — and the dawning realization after reading five more, then 10, then 20. And it doesn’t get easier. Every status that comes with a story is hard to read, and every status without one seems daunting in its quiet. It’s been a hard week of seeing people I’ve known for years, people I admire and love, posting statuses that identify them as having gone through something demeaning, hurtful and — how do I even find words to describe these experiences? It’s been a hard week seeing people I don’t even particularly like, don’t even really know, maybe met at a party once — identifying themselves and sharing stories of all the stupid, cruel, mundane ways that society reminds girls that no matter who you are, you’re not safe. It’s been a hard week of wondering how many are still silent, if someday, my little sister will post something like this too — because so many of these women are my age, and they have so many stories already.
Which is why I don’t agree that this movement is a misdirection of energy, or wrong in its methods. Because the mere presence of these testimonies not only highlights the magnitude of the problem, as was its intention, but also serves to tell stories that so far were hidden.
Consider this: You’re walking down the street, you’re in, say, eighth grade, and you’re wearing shorts because it’s summer and also because why does it matter what you’re wearing? — and a group of guys grab at you in broad daylight, just for a moment, just to startle you, to make your heart jump out of your chest and into your shocked hands, and you feel that burning shame and disgust and anger. You want to cry because how dare someone do this, and do this to you, and why didn’t you do anything, why didn’t you break their hands? And after they’ve continued down the street, and you’ve gotten into your car, what do you do?
When you’re just waiting for a cab, or crossing the street, or doing any of the thousand things you take for granted — and somebody decides that they can shout things at you, they can touch you or do any number of the things that they do every day to make you feel like it doesn’t matter that you’re a person — what do you do? When something worse than this happens — what happens?
When we don’t tell these stories, when we don’t let ourselves talk about what it feels like to be disrespected so blatantly and callously — where does it all go? A lot of the time, it goes into a box in a dark place that you rarely address because you know someone is going to hear you and suggest you pick up martial arts and stop being a sissy. But sometimes you open it, in whispers or in anger or in shame — and sometimes you show it to the world with bravery and courage, even if it is a hashtag that makes that happen.
We act like these things don’t happen, or they’re not that common — that really, everyone should just stop making such a big deal out of things. But these experiences, the way they make you feel, they don’t disappear. Because they’re so well hidden, it can feel like they’re not really there, but if this movement has shown me anything, it’s that something about how everyday these experiences are — they shape you. They affect the way you walk when you leave your home, what you wear and where you think you belong.
And speaking about it doesn’t make it go away — but it can change it. It can make the lump feel less like shame and a lot more like anger; it can make the frustrating and humiliation take on the shape of something more like determination. And honestly, even if it doesn’t — who cares? Hearing these truths, seeing this pain, witnessing the strength of these women, even if it doesn’t serve a purpose, it is worth doing. It is worth doing simply because this is the world we live in, and this is what the world did to these people.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.