In Defense of Hashtag Activism


Let’s begin with this: I am not a hashtag activist.

Although my work appears predominantly online, I am not an instinctive Tweeter. Few of my (admittedly, over-written and under-edited) sentences meet Twitter’s 140-character limit. The recipe for trend-able hashtags – which require an alchemical mixture of pith and cool – does not come naturally. The frenzied pace of hashtag conversations gives me the feeling of whiplash.

The unspoken etiquette of Twitter remains unfamiliar and causes a great deal of anxiety: When should one “at” another person? At what point in an ongoing conversation does one remove a lingering “at” to avoid harassing an unresponsive user? When should one favorite a tweet versus retweet it? How does one know which hashtag of several popular hashtags on a given subject is the right one to use?

Above all: How does one cram the complex issues raised by one’s intersectional identity – a subject that too often fails to fit within entire tomes of text — into the span of 30 words or less?

So, I am not a hashtag activist. I am a blogger (who happens to have a Twitter account).

But, I call bullshit on the prevailing notion that Twitter-based discourse is not – and can never be – legitimate activism.

Last week, Chicago-based writer and activist Yasmin Nair published the first in a series of posts proposing a neoliberal theory of Twitter through the case study of Suey Park.

Park is (or was) a Twitter-based Asian American feminist and activist who co-created the popular #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, but who is perhaps best known for starting the #CancelColbert campaign. Despite her efforts highlighting the racism and sexism of the Asian American community, white liberalism, and mainstream Christianity, at the height of her Twitter microfame Park also managed to drown out (in chronological order) other Asian American writers, feminists, and community organizers; Native organizers behind the #NotYourMascot movement; and Black feminists in digital spaces. Suey Park is an undeniably controversial figure whose legacy remains uncertain.

This is not a piece about Suey Park.

Nair, who is working on a book titled “Strange Love: Neoliberalism, Affect, and the Invention of Social Justice,” has been sharply critical of both Park and online activism in much of her previous writing. In her latest piece, Nair points to Park’s (and former Jeopardy! winner Arthur Chu’s) alleged history of personal and public revisionism to theorize that Twitter demands entrepreneurial invention (and capricious reinvention) of self. She further implies that this endless preoccupation with the construction of digital self precludes effective social justice work.

With regard to Nair’s overall theory of Twitter – and specifically, her ideas on the revisionist digital self — there’s much to agree with. Social media lacks the capacity to present the full complexity of offline life. Instead, it preserves only a digital afterimage of our offline experiences; and like a navel-gazing Pygmalion, we are compelled to shape and reshape that online imprint in search of a Galatea within. This flattened personal branding through continual invention and reinvention might distract from the cause(s) of social justice. More cynical netizens may co-opt (and corrupt) the fluidity of digital identity to fictionalize our oppressions, harass our organizers, and infiltrate our movements.

Nair’s theory of Twitter goes awry, however, when she concludes (based seemingly only on hindsight consideration of Park’s work) that Twitter itself is fundamentally incompatible with “effective” activism — or, more simply, that “hactivism” (a pejorative term I elect not to use elsewhere in this writing) is not itself “real” work. Peppered throughout Nair’s writing is a seething disdain for Twitter-based discourse. She finds Twitter to be a “perverse mirror” that suffers a “strong potential to stifle political refinement.” One begins to wonder: Does Nair disparage Park (and Chu) for their alleged self-aggrandizing entrepreneurship, or is it simply that they have leveraged Twitter discourse more successfully than most?

Ironically, Nair’s Luddite criticisms of Twitter as frivolous, self-absorbed, and disengaged finds publication in an online blog. Indeed, Nair categorizes blogging alongside the “conventional” (newspaper) publications that she romanticizes as a more respectable platform for the communication of complex political opinion. She forgets that her criticisms of Twitter echo those once made against bloggers, who have worked to repurpose blogs as a political and radical space. A decade ago, critics would have pejoratively labeled Nair and I as “keyboard activists” and dismissed our work as the fanciful musings of out-of-touch academics. “Traditional” organizing – the stuff of petitions and protest marches – was presented as the only form of “real” activism. What changed such that in the last ten years, blogging went from marginal to mainstream?

Last year, Alton Wang of Unhyphenate.Me challenged Asian America for a deeper consideration of our radicalism. He writes:

Yet while our bodies have long been a source of radical resistance, our culture and politics have not. What we colloquially think of as “radical” is actually not—the political ideas are labeled “radical” are simply ideas that are even further left than most progressives, instead of an idea that is profoundly radical. To be truly radical is to fundamentally reconsider the state of things, to uproot the social fabric at its very core and configure it anew.

I often find myself trying to rise to Alton’s challenge by actively interrogating the many ways that we – thinkingly and unthinkingly – replicate and perpetuate non-radical behaviours. In this case, I wonder: Don’t we bear a responsibility to break this cycle of technophobic recriminations against successive generations of activists and their tools of choice?

Grace Lee Boggs taught that systemic transformation requires parallel personal transformation. My favourite quote reads: “Revolution is evolution of self.” In 2008, Boggs extrapolated in an address to the Allied Media Conference:

A revolution, however, requires that a people go beyond struggling against oppressive institutions and make a evolutionary/revolutionary leap towards becoming more self-conscious, more self-critical, more socially responsible human beings. In order to transform the world, we/they must transform our/themselves.

Radical change is not just agitation; it requires decolonization* of the mind. This must be a lifelong commitment to never stop questioning one’s complicity in the status quo. Further, one cannot decolonize the mind in isolation; to unshackle the mind requires interactions with fellow revolutionaries – to learn from, to teach and mentor, and to work together in challenging the lessons internalized by a lifetime under white supremacy.

This is the role of online discourse, whether our medium of choice is long-form writing through blogs or short-form microblogging through Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram or Snapchat. White supremacy perpetuates itself by pushing the voices of people of colour to the margins. When we reappropriate digital platforms to tell our stories, we push back against our own marginalization. Through blogging (and micro-blogging), we create a vibrant interactome of previously unheard voices, and individual participation in this discourse seeds self-transformation and sparks systemic change.

This is not mere white noise; it is the actual substance of activism.

To view Twitter through this framework leaves me questioning Nair’s problematization of Twitter’s identity construction with regard to activism. Nair’s theory of Twitter argues that reinvention of self is incompatible with “effective” activism – that what constitutes “self” is innately rigid, made artificially fluid by online technology. Yet, I would argue that Grace Lee Bogg’s (r)evolutionary change is characterized by its rejection of a static self, in favour of a perpetually evolving self-conception positioned at the intersections of identity rather than viewed through a singular lens. Nair rightfully argues that Twitter teaches us that who we are (and more importantly, how we see ourselves and the world around us) is mutable. But might she be wrong in failing to see this as itself potentially transformative? We cannot change the self if the self is presented as unchanging. We cannot decolonize the mind if we never learn that the mind can be decolonized.

And, for those who remain non-believers: several times, I have been privileged to meet young Asian American activists (many who are also loudly and proudly feminist) who tell me that my writing inspired their work – as artists, as student activists, and as budding community organizers. I can no longer afford to believe that this blog has had no impact. Just as my own teachers (didactic or otherwise) expanded my own awareness, this blog has paid those lessons forward. Revolution does, indeed, begin with self-transformation, and self-transformation is sparked by robust discourse.

My contribution to the discourse is through my long-form blogging. However, the popularity of #NotYourAsianSidekick and subsequent hashtags such as #MyAsianAmericanStory should teach us — the once-marginalized (now apparently “traditional”) bloggers — that the online discourse remains insufficient. The status quo – even while it permits writers like myself to amplify the voices of Asian American feminists from our place outside the mainstream – continues to fail some within the community; those are the people who gravitated to the #NotYourAsianSidekick and #MyAsianAmericanStory hashtags. Micro-blogging cannot replace long-form blogging, or vice versa. There is no perfect tool. But a more radical Asian America would find our bloggers and our hashtag activists (and our academics and our scholars and our community organizers and our rabblerousers) working hand-in-hand in symbiosis with one another’s work, not tearing each other down.

We are increasingly cyborgs – living life across the divide of the offline and digital worlds. Social media platforms like Twitter excel in particular at creating interpersonal connections across geographic distance. For young people – marginalized by race, language, gender and/or sexuality – these social media platforms have become a gathering place where conversation is democratized and the discourse truly engages everyone. For Asian Americans, who boast the highest rates of connectivity of any racial or ethnic group, the internet has been our political proving ground, and we have been among its earliest radical pioneers.

In recognition of my own privilege as a content gatekeeper, I have elected to be publicly agnostic on the topic of Suey Park. Though I am (favourably) cited in Nair’s writing as critical of the #CancelColbert hashtag (which I am), I am not persuaded that Nair’s theory of Twitter required such a pedantic dissection of Park’s digital history, nor am I convinced that conclusions about the (in)effectiveness of Twitter as an activist tool can be drawn from detailed consideration of a sample size of one.

Most of all, I am frustrated by Nair’s incongruous application of her neoliberal Twitter theory to make a sweeping dismissal of hashtag activism in all its forms. People of colour – and, women of colour, in particular – have long found ourselves without space or voice. Pushed to the very edges of mainstream or marginal discourse, we have used the tools at our disposal – including Twitter — to defy our own erasure by building our own classrooms to challenge conventional dogma on race, gender, and identity.

To delegitimize Twitter – and by extension, all digital conversation — as a potential vehicle for social change is much more than a dismantling of Suey Park. Intentionally or not, Nair’s writing delegitimizes an entire generation of activists whose work focuses primarily on the creation of a robust discourse in an unconventional digital space, and that specifically services women (and men) of colour.

We can all agree with this: the revolution itself will not be tweeted, or blogged, or televised. Radical change to America’s systems of oppression cannot be accomplished solely via tools developed by, reliant on, and profitable to corporate America.

But, that does not mean that television, blogs, and social media have no place within the toolkit of the discerning social justice activist.

Revolutionary/evolutionary change must start somewhere. Everyone’s journey towards consciousness is unique. Perhaps for some it begins with a hashtag.

Want to hear more? I will appear this Saturday, April 16 at MAASU alongside a panel of other Asian American online content creators to discuss the power and promise of new media as a vehicle for activism and social change. If you are in Minneapolis this weekend, please join us!

*–Update: Since writing this piece, reader  O.K. pointed out that my use of “decolonization” as a metaphor — while once an en vogue turn-of-phrase when used in this manner — is also problematic for its erasure of the tangible effects of settler colonialism on indigenous communities through its facile appropriation of colonial/decolonial language. This misuse of “decolonialization” as metaphor may seek absolution of a non-indigenous user for their complicity in settler colonialism, a consequence that I did not intend though I certainly see in retrospect. I apologize for this problematic usage and am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn through reading of this article by Tuck and Yang (2012). Since this post has become quite popular (and given its subject matter concerning the potential for revisionism in the digital world) I have elected to preserve the original language of this post and to include this afterword outlining the problems with my original usage.

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