The votes are in and the winner for the most recent buzzword that every left-leaning individual on the internet seems to be overusing for the sake of pseudo-intellectualism is “performative”. Much like “woke” and “intersectionality”, “performative activism” seems to be joining the ranks of words that hit the mainstream and immediately loose the complexity and nuance they originally were borne out of. The problem is not that these words themselves didn’t have thought put into their inception, it is that they are often explaining complex concepts rather than easily meme-able internet slang.
The phrase “performative activism” originated in 1998 in an autobiography of Barbara Green titled “Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Performative Activism, and the Sites of Suffrage” where she discusses the Federation era of women’s suffrage in Australia. It resurfaced in 2015 in online articles and gained traction during the George Floyd Protest in 2020.
It has, in every one of these instances, been used to refer to cheap symbolic gestures that lack any actual action behind them. It is not when irony happens, and it is not when any symbol anywhere is used as a means of protest. It is also most certainly not when protest has any sense of performance to it. Activism by its very nature has always had performative aspect to it Performance in and of itself is neutral. The act of broadcasting something to a larger body then yourself has always been an integral tool in activism.
Should it encompass everything? No. Can it be done shallowly and poorly? Absolutely. However, generalizing the idea that if there is performance in your activism, then it is inherently shallow or disingenuous does not encourage anyone to engage with different levels of protest.
This has never been more apparent then in the online left’s response to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Met Gala dress streaked with the phrase “Tax the Rich”. The cries of “performative activism” were heard through the hallowed halls of every social media platform. Everyone felt oh so smart pointing out the irony of AOC wearing such a garment at an event where tickets cost $30,000 and the guestlist includes the “rich” her dress called out.
People went so far as to call her rich when her congressional salary compares to that of a decent coder, doctor, or lawyer. If you’re going to claim to be anti-capitalist and not even understand the difference between upper middle class and Elon Musk levels of wealth, then maybe the “performative activism” call is coming from inside the house. But, but she can afford to go at all.
Yes, the Met Gala is a fundraising event and New York politicians have been attending for decades. Furthermore, the attendees that are invited by a designer, do not have to pay, which was the case for AOC. She doesn’t even get to keep it. She worked with a designer, Aurora James, a black woman, and an activist herself, wore the dress in front of the very people it referenced, and has introduced multiple bills to do just what her dress says, “Tax the Rich”.
There really isn’t anything superficial about what she did. It might not be groundbreaking, and it might not have immediately liberated every marginalized person but to say that it was simply performative is reductive. Furthermore, choosing to criticize a self-proclaimed socialist wearing a borrowed dress to amplify a message you agree with instead of any of the actual capitalists at the event speaks to your activism.
It could be argued that the message gets lost in the controversy but the idea that you cannot criticize a society that you participate in is paradoxical. We have come to a point where it is somehow seen as smarter to criticize how prominent leftists interact with the ruling class then it is to actually criticize the ruling class.
The need to immediately vilify any politician needs to be put to rest. You should always criticize and critically engage with the work your politicians do.
They should always be held accountable to the public they serve. However, the failure to understand that liberation requires us to fight oppressive structures at every level only serves those structures. Being against any politician on the mere fact of them being a politician is not the progressive stance some appear to think it is.
Politicians alone have not and cannot be the only way we dismantle these systems but the are a component we will need. Political and social nihilism, although comfortable, will not save anyone. In fact, it only serves those systems of oppression you claim to want to dismantle by exhausting your critical thinking on your own performative activism.