Text by Cherie Tseng
For reasons unbeknownst to me, my friend’s 15-year-old daughter opted to hang out at my place for an afternoon. This was post-Circuit Breaker and maybe she had fewer outing options, but it is always illuminating to spend time with a chatty, plugged-in young person. So, over cakes and juice, she caught me up on the latest K-drama, trends on social media and the vagaries of mid-teen life.
Black Lives Matter had just taken place and she wanted to know my thoughts on it. I confessed that I wasn’t as schooled in it as I’d like. She joked that I needed to be more “woke” and that all the girls in her school were posting about it. She was already late to the game, having not yet posted on it. Her friends, she said, kept telling her to get a move on things. “Post something and be part of the conversation!”, they opined in a flurry of texts.
I asked her why she tarried and, with some measure of teenage dramatics, she confessed: “I don’t know much about it and it feels dishonest to post about something just to be cool!”
She didn’t end up posting anything on #BLM but she did on a myriad of other things after that; issues that, I assume, meant more to her or were more in line with who she was as a person.
Clearly, that showed a level of character-consistency and self-awareness that belied her youth.
Social media makes it easy for us to be part of greater conversations that move society forward. And, in equal measure, it makes it easy for us to get caught up in the moment. We all want to appear well informed, involved and aware. Be the first to post about a celebrity’s death.
Champion the cause du jour; the ALS ice bucket challenge comes to mind — people dunking water on each other and tagging their friends but have no clue what ALS even means. Lots of ice, much less awareness on the ground.
James Clear, of the internationally best-selling Atomic Habits, qualifies this difference quite aptly by illuminating the difference between being in motion and taking action. Motion, he says, is about planning, learning and theorising. Action is about deliberate practice to deliver an outcome. It is easy to mistake being in motion as making progress or helping to move the needle on something that needs change.
It is posting about a cause just to appear with the times without fully understanding what it is about; it’s a dissonance occurring between what we support and how we live. We hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or #SupportMigrantWorkers but still display all measures of microaggressions: clutching our bag slightly closer to us when we are in a lift with an African-American or crossing the road when we spy a migrant worker walking towards us.
More mildly, and more commonplace: people purport to support all manner of ways of being or getting involved in a myriad of advocacy projects, but their lives run counterintuitive. It is touting a kindness movement on Facebook while being dismissive to friends on WhatsApp. Promoting a simpler, less materialistic way of living but also publicly documenting your latest five-figure watch or other indulgence.
Don’t get me wrong, in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with enjoying life the way you want to. It’s just that social media cuts both ways: it also spotlights how we live to the rest of the world. We need to live what we advocate. Take Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who have been accused of hypocrisy after it surfaced that they take private jets despite their constant cries about climate change. In the couple’s biography, Finding Freedom, the Duke of Sussex acknowledged the move as a mistake.
Conversely, a friend, a paediatric doctor at a local hospital actively advocated responsible behaviour in the early days of the pandemic. She posted plenty, even documenting her own quarantine journey online. She didn’t just preach it though, she actioned it: spending long hours after a full shift in the A&E, calling bars and other nightspots to try and convince them to reconsider their “one-last-hurrah” plans. And didn’t post anything about it.
If we strip it down, perhaps, it is about the unwitting vanity that social media sometimes invokes in us, despite our best intentions. In this everchanging reality, the biggest and most potent advocacy tool in each of our personal arsenal might not be our passion but our consistency — in character, in words and in our deeds.
So what cause will we action today and how will we live?
Cherie Tseng is COO at a Singapore fintech company, mother of three and editor at The Birthday Collective.