A qualified defense of slacktivism

John Ohno
3 min readDec 20, 2016

Slacktivism is a failure if you consider it to be a form of activism, but as a form of value signalling, it is terribly effective. We underestimate the value of signalling at our peril.

Some parts of our moral landscape appear to be biological in origin: a revulsion reaction to the idea of incest, for instance, appears to be the result of the sexual imprint process (and we can tell because siblings separated at birth actually have a much higher likelihood of ending up together, while unrelated children who spend a lot of time living together prior to puberty, even in non-family settings like boarding schools, have unnaturally low rates of sleeping together as adults). Others, however, seem to be primarily controlled by culture, specifically by cultural manipulation of empathy and shame. (We dehumanize enemies in war via propaganda, in order to eliminate the empathy we might normally have toward them & the shame we might hold for killing them, and instead substitute a new set of rules around what kinds of killings are shameful. If the domain over which empathy operated was biologically determined, the flexibility that makes modern warfare possible would not exist.)

Some people lack empathy (or its effect on them is abnormally low), just as some people lack the in-built biological drive to avoid incest. Shame works to police such people. Ultimately, shame serves to punish people who engage in violations of a culture’s idea of moral behavior by lowering social status (and with it, access to various resources — particularly…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net