Slacktivism, that most satisfying of portmanteaus that combines ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’, has typically been used to refer to the habit of ‘liking’ or sharing something on social media; it acknowledges the act of getting involved without having to do anything at all. The finest examples of slacktivism are probably Kony2012, and the BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign that circulated the world when hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria. Incidentally, Kony is still at large – and this excellent article explains what happened to the organisation behind the movement; the Chibok schoolgirls have yet to return home.
I would like to propose a slight alteration to the definition of slacktivism. On Saturday 21st January 2017, millions of women from around the world marched. Quite why they marched some people weren’t sure but that’s perhaps because they were marching for a whole host of reasons. I live on the tiny island of Nevis in the Caribbean, a 36 square mile gem offering unforgettable views from around a single jungle-clad, cloud-capped dormant volcano. From the 1650s it was an island at the forefront of the sugar industry, the finest jewel in Britain’s colonial crown and one that earned itself the moniker Queen of the Caribbees.
And on that Saturday, women also marched here, something that inadvertently became a fine example of slacktivism.
The residents today are a mix of families descended from former slaves, a handful of people whose ancestors once owned or managed the plantations, a Guyanese population who primarily work as domestic help and gardeners, and a clutch of largely affluent white people. In the winter months the population swells with the ‘snowbirds’ who fly south for the warmer climes, retreating to their luxurious second homes nestled in tropical gardens with infinity pools ever-reaching towards the sea and sky. Interestingly, the demographics are largely similar to those back in the early 1700s: approximately 10,000 black to 1,000 white people, with the bulk of the wealth being held by the latter.
I turned up at the women’s march not to participate but to witness. I have no doubt that the organisers had the best intentions; I have no doubt they worry about the rights of women both here and around the world. But what I doubt very much is that this march will have made any difference.
Deliberately non-political – anyone wearing a ‘pussy hat’ was asked to remove it, although one banner did seem suspiciously linked to Trump by stating we should ‘build bridges, not walls’ – the group of women gathered in the small garden of a local cafe. It was, by and large, akin to any other social event I have attended here. The talk was not of women and their rights but of drinking and gardens and pool maintenance and shipping delays and holidays and beach barbecues, and everything that is immediately relevant to people living on a small, isolated island. The vast majority were white, indeed I would go so far as to estimate that 95% were white.
One of the clutch of black women was mentioned by name as the organiser gave her opening speech: here was Hope Trott, a lady who had marched with Martin Luther King and heard him give his ‘I have a dream’ speech over fifty years ago. It felt as if she was being presented as a prize, a star turn – that she was somehow being used to legitimise the march. Everyone wanted their photo taken with her.
Finally, when I had reached the point of being unable to endure one more rendition of Love Train, the women set off, first posing for photographs with their placards in the grounds of the Alexander Hamilton museum.
And, by God, they marched. It felt as if it was a replacement for a Saturday morning workout as they power-walked their way through the town, shouting about ‘ending the violence’. I kept about thirty yards in front, snapping away with my camera and listening to the responses of the local shopkeepers who poked their heads out to see what distraction the morning was offering up. By and large, their confused reaction was, ‘What violence?’ It began to feel as if they had a point.
The route chosen was almost laughably short. True, Charlestown is a miniature town, but I might have had more respect for the procession had they put in more than ten minutes’ worth of work. I know a lady who walked an entire lap of the island in the height of summer while dressed as an elephant in order to raise money for suffering pachyderms in Africa – that’s an achievement worth doffing a cap for. Even the stragglers of the march made it back to the cafe within the fifteen minute mark, sinking down into comfortable chairs for a reviving cup of tea.
Afterwards, I overheard a lady from St Kitts, our sister island that lies two miles away across The Narrows, saying to a friend that she was so happy she had come across because she hadn’t had a chance to see Nevis before: one of the women from the march had said she would drive her round the island. She was standing barely ten yards from one of the local taxi drivers who double up as tour guides: yes, US$80 might seem expensive for a tour of a few hours but it is reflective of both the cost of living here and the size of the wallets of anyone who would ever need a tour. She had just marched for the rights of women, loudly declaimed her solidarity with her sisters, and yet wasn’t prepared to hand over money to a local tour guide who would have taken it back home to his wife and children. Don’t tell me this march wasn’t about immediate gratification for the participants in a manner suspiciously similar to slacktivism, and don’t tell me that networking and boredom didn’t play a significant role either.
Protests against the Iraq War were the largest the world has ever seen; in a period of four months, 36 million people around the world took part in over 3000 separate protests against the war – and yet it went on. We protest and sign petitions and nothing happens, nothing changes. I know many of the women who marched in Nevis and I know the work they are involved with locally, and for them I have huge respect. They do something. They have intentions that are followed up by tangible actions. I lived in sub Saharan Africa for the best part of four years and I saw it all: the do-gooders; those eager to enhance a CV; the ones who want a ‘life experience’, and the ones who will give up every damn thing to help somebody else while expecting nothing in return.
On Saturday, the local black women didn’t march because they didn’t know it was happening, they didn’t understand the purpose, and they didn’t have the freedom to do so – they had children to look after, jobs to do, meals to prepare. I imagine that many would have felt intimidated to be surrounded by so many white women, and I imagine that many would not have wanted to affiliate themselves with that privileged
group. While people in America worry that Trump is taking them back a few decades, here it seems we never left the world slavery presented us with a few centuries ago.
What I say to everyone who marched – not just here on Nevis – is we must think beyond those few hours of Saturday morning. In a world where people like Trump can be elected, more than ever we need moments of kindness and goodness and magic. Don’t turn a blind eye to the inconvenient and uncomfortable truths that hide behind closed doors and down dark alleys, and don’t rely on others to fix what is broken. Stop ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ and ‘tweeting’; stop ‘marching’ and ‘rallying’ and ‘shouting’. Stop needing to be part of something so much bigger than yourself that your individual voice is no longer heard. We were born to be more than a shouted slogan or a statement on a discarded placard.
Photos: Elizabeth Jane Thomas