By Marcus Mescher
What does “solidarity” mean? People use this term to imply unity with a cause or group, but for many, it’s not altogether clear what makes solidarity something different from community. In Catholic theology, the line that is often invoked to define solidarity comes from Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis (“On Social Concerns”). Here solidarity is identified as a virtue that follows a commitment to interdependence, a moral and social attitude that
is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all (#38).
The problem with this definition is that it puts solidarity in the context of another complex term such that we have to understand what the “common good” means (which, too often, results in a laundry list of quotations where the term has been used, but not always well defined).
Solidarity has also been defined as “social friendship,” a reference to Aristotle’s vision of the virtuous community. Today, we might understand solidarity as an inclusive loyalty: a loyalty that crosses boundaries and tries to forge unity across difference. Solidarity is more than personal; it also is a commitment to build the kinds of beliefs, values, practices, relationships, policies, and structures that build a more inclusive, diverse, and just ordering of society.
Given how much time we spend online—for many people, even more hours than we sleep — it is tempting to think that we can achieve solidarity on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other services can help raise awareness about various issues and connect us with others who care. Trending hashtags represent opportunities to spread the word and grow the movement. There have been numerous examples in recent years, ranging from the #IceBucketChallenge to #BlackLivesMatter to #PrayforParis. Most forms of hashtag activism (or “slacktivism”) have tragically short windows to marshal support for a cause. (Have we already forgotten about #hurricaneMatthew from last month, even though the $10.5 billion in damages will take years to address?)
Advocates of slacktivism point to the good that can result from these social media campaigns. Notably, the #IceBucketChallenge raised more than $100 million for ALS research, even leading to a medical breakthrough. But critics point to the small number of individuals who actually donated to the cause and question the use of these funds. A better example might be #BlackLivesMatter, which has actually become a political force and resulted in policy changes.
Another current example of slacktivism is the support for the Souix Native American tribe who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, a four-state, multi-billion-dollar pipeline currently being constructed through sacred land (burial grounds on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation) in North Dakota. Protestors are raising awareness with #NoDAPL on social media and in the last few days, more than 1.5 million Facebook users “checked-in” at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This came in response to a report that the local sheriff’s office was using Facebook to monitor and arrest protestors, who are called Water Protectors. Although Snopes debunked this story early on, this hasn’t slowed the hashtag activism; in fact, the most recent development is a #12HourWaterChallenge to be in solidarity with the Water Protectors.
The intentions behind the Facebook “check-in” seem to connect with the aims of solidarity: a gesture to change one’s location to represent inclusive social friendship meant to shield the Water Protectors. But taking the few seconds to “check-in” doesn’t fulfill the obligations required by solidarity—especially when it’s so easy to scroll or swipe past this issue and forget about it. Others hold a less charitable view and call this gesture a “waste of time.” Some Native Americans have said they appreciated the gesture and the fact that the Facebook check-in raised more awareness for the protestors, but they also add that solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux requires much more than a single click, as their website outlines.
A main problem with slacktivism is that too many people equate awareness with action or social awareness with responsibility. Awareness does not mean activism; it is neither true that once people become aware of a cause they automatically are committed to that cause. Awareness is just the first step of a long process of growing in solidarity and building more just practices, relationships, and policies.
Moreover, slacktivism operates from a position of power and privilege. It does not demand much from the slacktivist (as the term implies) and does not necessarily lead to learning more about what justice requires, making sacrifices to benefit those in need, or building more inclusive or mutual relationships (as solidarity requires). As part of a commitment to justice and the common good, solidarity must involve transparency, mutuality, and accountability, all areas where slacktivism falls short. In fact, slacktivism operates more like a digital form of toxic charity that disempowers others in need and trains them to be dependent on the good will of others.
Gustavo Gutiérrez argues that, “There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help. Respecting their status as those who control their own destiny is an indispensable condition for genuine solidarity.” In other words, if we are to take seriously the command to love our neighbor in a universal sense (as the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 illustrates that everyone is to be considered a neighbor), this neighbor-love means following the Samaritan’s example to go out of our way and into the ditch, to take up the vantage point of the one in need. Solidarity implies that we change our social location in the concrete (and not just digitally) and stand with those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. Changing our location on social media might alert our friends and followers to an important cause, but it isn’t the same as standing with those who are being pelted with rubber bullets and pepper spray or hearing firsthand accounts of why this land is sacred and deserves to be protected.
Admittedly, not many of us can break away from our commitments and make the journey to North Dakota to stand with the Water Protectors. But that doesn’t mean that we can fulfill our social obligations through the screen of our phone, tablet, or computer. Gutiérrez summarizes his vision of solidarity in terms of justice that “equally implies friendship with the poor and among the poor. Without friendship there is neither authentic solidarity nor true sharing. In fact, it is a commitment to specific people.” As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ reflects, we can’t just talk about the poor, we should name them. Solidarity is about a loyalty that moves us closer to the poor; by sharing life with those who are suffering and struggling, we come to not just recognize the dignity of those in need or care about the problems they face, but because we care so deeply about them, their problems become our problems. Out of this genuine concern, we can’t help but dedicate ourselves to working for their dignity, rights, and freedom. And as friendship grows, so, transparency, mutuality, and accountability increase.
Slacktivism might raise awareness and it might be a first step to advocacy that calls on those in positions of power to respond to the needs of those most in need among us. But as Gutiérrez sees it, “the goal is not to become, except in cases of extreme urgency or short duration, the ‘voice of the voiceless’ as is sometimes said—undoubtedly with the best of intentions—but rather in some way to help ensure that those without a voice find one. Being an agent of one’s own history is for all people an expression of freedom and dignity, the starting point and source of authentic human development.”
In other words, solidarity is about building the kinds of attitudes, habits, relationships, practices, and policies that enhance the dignity of all, foster inclusive belonging, and create the conditions under which people can participate in a just society. In our commitment to raising awareness about matters of injustice or organizing activism to bring about right-relationship with God, others, and all creation, our social media activity should flow from and lead to the kinds of decisions and relationships that cultivate what Pope Francis has called a “culture of encounter” that puts us into contact with—and leads us to genuine connection with—those who have been rendered socially insignificant, the nonpersons, the poor. In these encounters, connections, and budding friendships, we can take up the work of solidarity, which, as Gutiérrez writes, is to empower others to become “subjects of their own destiny.”
That is the vision for human flourishing to which we are called. And it requires so much more than a click.
NB: All Gustavo Gutierrez quotes come from “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ” Theological Studies 70 (2009), 317-326.