A reputed magazine recently started the voting process for their annual blogger awards. I get a message from a friend asking me to vote for ‘digital social activist of the year’. I open the link and see four contenders – an actress, a comedian, a singer and an influencer. Whom should I vote for, I ask myself. Some names do not seem familiar.
“Bro, how can you not know her… she is so famous, she is so woke!”
I fail to understand what deserves an award – being famous for being woke or being woke for being famous.
For the digital social media activist, it is about telling the world how they are raising ‘important issues’, posturing themselves as ‘woke activists’. For those at the receiving end, it is a fight for dignity. Social justice then becomes a personality trait, and the struggles of Dalit, Muslims, Bahujan, Adivasi, LGBTQIA+ people are their ‘content’ that garners followers and builds their claim to these ‘awards’.
“They are creating awareness,” retort their fans. The fact that netizens have become dependent on these influencers for ‘awareness’ that must be fed through lighthearted ‘content’, reveals the privileged nature of such a discourse, one which is contingent on showing pain which needs to be palatable and sanitised for this audience.
My point here is not to simply say that some people have it worse than others. Struggle is not a competition. But awards are. They necessarily mean to compete, by making some winners of ‘titles’. The one who will get the maximum votes will be hailed as the one who ‘deserves’ that award. Who determines the value of ‘social activism ‘ on digital platforms? Those affected by it? Or those who subscribe to the cult of these influencers, who accumulate social capital through the number of people who ‘follow’ them. Because to ‘follow’ also means to walk behind someone, as they lead by their persona.
This is also not to discount anyone’s struggles in their version of activism. However, it is not hidden that the abuse that Kunal Kamra will get is not the same as Munawar Faruqui, and that the trolls of Dolly Singh will not regularly ask her to “go to Pakistan”. Be it due to Hindutva trolls, or ‘woke’ liberals, in either case, it is these ‘digital activists’ who remain the centre of both controversy and conversations on social justice online. Their “activism” builds their brand and hails them as social justice warriors.
In the same but different world, someone’s activism gets them lynched, jailed in pregnancy, or killed. Their names remain invisible or in best case, on the margins. Those on margins require to be ‘saved’ or endorsed by these influencers to become a mainstream and an ‘important’ issue.
While one stream of opinion on social media has called out the privileged and ‘non-representative’ nature of these awards, and very rightly so, it has simultaneously asked to replace these privileged ‘nominees’ with those from marginalised groups.
A deeper question confronts us here. Does passing the ‘mic’ also necessarily mean ‘passing the award’? Would it be any better if it were a Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, or LGBTQIA+ person winning such awards for ‘digital social activism’? I see no value in a system of rewarding people for how much content they can make out of struggles, while those on the receiving end have to risk their lives to get their voices heard. It does not matter who gets rewarded, because nobody should be for their performance online. If allyship means to acknowledge and use privilege to help in someone’s struggle, does it also mean showing the world how much you help someone using your privilege and the quantity of receivers of your help? Perhaps we have failed to imagine a social media ‘activism’ that can happen in private, one that does not trumpet the self or crave for eyeballs.
I am not making a critique against neoliberalism in social movements which would warrant an elaborate discussion, but my point is much humbler. Should we (re)claim “space” in a system that excludes us, or should we abolish the very system that tells us there is a space for which we must compete?
If we believe in elimination of all forms of oppression, solidarity and allyship are a moral duty. Solidarity cannot be premised on giving incentives to people, to give ranks and awards. It cannot be based on ‘competition’, which is the intrinsic logic of capitalism – one which requires rising up by stepping on others. This kind of competition is neither noble nor feminist if it comes in feminist packaging.
Rahul Rao’s observations in a different context explain what is happening today more vividly. While reviewing the book Confessions of a Fox, Rao wrote, “The disagreement between Bess and Jack… is a metaphor for the great debate in virtually all revolutionary and decolonisation movements: Do we want what they have, or do we explode the structure of desire that has us wanting what they want and have?”
I get interrupted by another text. “Did you vote?”
“No, I thought I would see your name there,” I reply.
“Oh, that’s so sweet, you know nobody acknowledges all the work I do, and the people I have helped during the lockdown, these awards are a scam… Can you share my page, please?”
Faizan Ahmad is a part-time law student and full-time curious reader. He is not an activist but can be reached on Instagram at ahmad__faizan [double underscore].
Featured image: Instagram/@cosmoindia