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EDITORIAL: Exhausted activism can hinder social progress

Spreading yourself too thin over too many social problems eventually hurts the causes you are trying to help

Activism is a key component of social change, but with the sheer volume of problems we face today, crisis fatigue runs the risk of lowering an individual's capacity for actually making those changes. – Photo by

Although it seems like 2020 was a particularly apocalyptic year, there has never been a shortage of crises demanding our attention. Currently, India's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) death rate is skyrocketing. As of 2019, police violence was one of the leading causes of death for young men in America. Over the past month, we witnessed multiple mass shootings in cities like Atlanta, Boulder and Indianapolis.

Our health care system continues to buckle under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries across the globe are suffering the indignities of severe poverty and war. The backdrop for this misery is the continuing climate crisis that threatens to upset the balance of our ecosystems.

Each crisis is dire. Each crisis is made up of people who need help. Each crisis asks us to donate, volunteer, learn, share and like. But you can only pay attention to so many fires at once.

Crisis fatigue, or activist fatigue, is the inevitable result and can ultimately hinder progress. Our time and energy are limited resources, and so, picking what issues to prioritize comes down to a pragmatic choice. You have to pick the issues that speak to you and that you have the ability to do something about. 

If you try to attack every problem that pops up on your screen, you will find yourself tired and possibly even burned out. Activists are particularly worn down by their profession, as most of their work is, unfortunately, an uphill battle. For those of us who are not full-time activists, feeling pressured into committing to activism in too many domains poses the same risk.  

We feel pressure from our own empathy and desire to help others, but also from the social culture of shaming that demands we be “woke” in everything from the organic food we eat to the posts we make. Call-out culture, or the practice of accusing people of not being as tuned in as we think they should be to activist issues, pushes people away from movements.

Shaming people into caring about something only encourages performative activism. When we feel shamed, we post and virtue signal to avoid the lecture and gain the approval of our friends. Virtue signaling is not always malicious but, for some, a way to cope with not being able to keep up with the increasingly serious crises of the world.

The solution is not to spread yourself thin or pretend to be invested in issues that you do not know much about. You should make an effort to be well versed in the world around you, of course, but invest your time and effort in those issues that you can have an impact on. Focusing on specific goals for social change can not only prevent burnout, but also help make the work you do to push certain agendas more meaningful and productive. 

Prioritize issues that you have the power to actually do something about. Keeping people informed and attentive by sharing information online is valuable, but actions always speak louder than words.

While it is important to be educated about the comings and goings of Supreme Court decisions on abortion and family planning rights, you can help out by interning at your local Planned Parenthood. Raging against the forces contributing to poverty in the U.S. on Twitter may seem cathartic, but working for Elijah’s Promise or donating to New Brunswick food pantries will make a much greater impact.

All things considered, social activism in any capacity should not distract from the bigger policy changes that need to happen.

While individuals recycling and being conscious of their impact on the environment does have a positive effect, corporations still need to make drastic changes about the way they approach sustainability if any substantial improvements are to happen. While sharing information about police brutality is helpful, there needs to be legal action taken to change the way police unions operate and the way cases of brutality are handled. 

Crisis fatigue is a threat, especially during unprecedented difficult times, but you can combat it by accepting that you will have to pick and choose which issues you dedicate the most time to. You should make an effort to be aware of movements going on and how many social issues are interconnected, but be realistic about how much effort you can allot to each one.

As a student, your influence right now is limited, but stay connected with the issues that matter to you, and you may be the one to one day solve them.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 153rd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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