Micro-Level Activism: The New Individualism

Lailee Golesorkhi, Jun 24, 2024

As a result of rapidly increasing globalization, social media usage, and post-pandemic frustrations, the past decade has become one characterized by a surge in youth-led activism. College students, in particular, have expanded upon previous movements to advocate for an end to police brutality, the preservation of the environment, and justice more generally for marginalized groups both at home and abroad. The novelty of this wave lies not in its breadth or even its mobilization of swaths of young people, but rather in its tactics. 


Admirably and ambitiously, young people frequently participate in movements aimed at mitigating deeply entrenched and systemic issues. However, several of these movements have—in a manner which defies their ostensible collectivist ideology and emphasis on the “systemic” and “institutional”—modified their rhetoric to underscore the necessity of individual changes in behavior which bear seemingly no immediate relevance to the issues that they seek to resolve. Instead of interpreting these institutional barriers to progress as an indicator of the vitality of voting, activists are instead persuaded to incorporate consistent yet micro-level actions into their day-to-day lives. Blame is placed on the average citizen for contributing to wars overseas or to inequalities at home, creating a guilt-based activism that encourages quick and gratifying solutions over a long-term commitment to education and civic action. 


This strategy is inherently detrimental and intimately tied with several different modern phenomena, including performative activism, internet-facilitated social policing, and—perhaps most concerningly—an emphasis on individualism. Boycotts and other tactics that require the modification of one’s everyday routine have existed for decades, but what distinguishes and problematizes contemporary activism relative to that of the past is our enhanced ability to surveil and sanction one another by way of social media. It is now possible to single out individuals who do not participate in these movements with relative ease, a cultural shift that—at its core—reflects a conflation between individual and structural change; the former does not inherently produce the latter unless very particular conditions are met and dramatic institutional rehauling occurs. Yes, not purchasing from an unethical brand hampers that brand’s profits and may discourage future unethical business practices, but the problem highlighted in this article is that many seem to also believe that 1) the success of the brand is intimately tied to the troublesome outcome or societal harm in question, 2) the failure of that brand will be conducive to widespread change, and 3) those who continue to support the business are directly culpable for the prolongation of the issue. 


Systemic change is no easy feat, and it would be unrealistic for movements to solely aim for such ambitious reforms. Accordingly, I do not believe that this ought to be the strategy of every movement. The problem, rather, is the placement of individual changes on par with institutional ones and the framing of a failure to participate in these individual changes as a rejection of the necessity of systemic change. Such rhetoric dissuades participation and makes collective effort exceptionally challenging, and recognizing this truth is an important first step in the right direction. 


Before beginning, it would be remiss of me to fail to note that I understand the appeal of these tactics and why they have become so popular and ubiquitous. Young people may feel a disproportionate burden to remedy the issues we face today which—when coupled with the general disillusionment with politics the youngest generations feel—convinces many not only that their individual vote is insignificant, but that voting in and of itself is a meaningless practice given the aforementioned systemic nature of many contemporary issues. In the context of a media environment in which the aim is often to publish the most outrageous and click-worthy news possible, this mindset creates a high demand for immediate gratification to ease the conscience, whether it be through a donation to a nonprofit, a refusal to purchase clothing from that one company you heard was unethical on Instagram, or a signature for a petition. The point is not that individual actions are harmful or meaningless in and of themselves, but that we must recognize that these actions, alone, are simply insufficient if sweeping change is the aim. We need to vote, but we do not because the dominant understanding suggests that doing so is ineffective, change is impossible, and therefore we all —paradoxically — must scrutinize our day-to-day choices to compensate for the fact that change has not occurred. 


I will begin by contrasting high rates of youth activism in the United States with low election participation rates to demonstrate the logical inconsistencies in the rhetoric used by many activists today. Next, I will explain how certain tactics harnessed by the environmental and pro-Palestinian movements are well-intentioned, but inadvertently prioritize short-term gratification over long-term solutions. Lastly, I will conclude with a discussion of the social and political implications of these movements. Though I would like to provide solutions and strategies young people can implement into their lives to effectively produce the change they are striving for, the point of this article is that change is nuanced and no one strategy is consistently effective or feasible. Voting is perhaps the only surefire way for youths to effectuate change, and I will demonstrate below why addressing our refusal to do so is a great place to start. 


Political Participation 

Political engagement among young Americans is somewhat peculiar, with high rates of activism somehow coexisting with low electoral participation. Only 43.4 percent of Americans aged 18-29 participated in the 2016 presidential election, a figure that dropped to 23 percent in the 2022 midterm elections [1]. However, according to a recent survey conducted by the United Way of the National Capital Area, nearly a third out of the 1000 Gen Z individuals surveyed regularly engage in activism or social justice work. Over half of Gen Zers have participated in rallies or protests to support specific causes or social issues, but the overwhelming majority (66 percent) of the generation’s activism takes place online [2].


Young people recognize that there are issues in the status quo and are evidently passionate about them, but not many of us vote or engage in the actions that can most directly galvanize political change. The goal of this article is not to draw a causal relationship between the rhetoric of contemporary social and political movements and low voter turnout, but to suggest that this incongruence can be attributed—among dozens of other factors—to the highly individualistic nature of these movements. We shame those who do not boycott certain organizations or purchase ethically produced goods but rarely invoke this social sanctioning with respect to voting. The result is that someone can engage in micro-level actions to quell any feelings of guilt and powerlessness they may have, feel as though they have done their part to mitigate the issue at hand and stop exploring other potential strategies. Framing voting as the only option available is not the solution, of course, but the trivialization of voting relative to the tactics described below is where the problem lies.  


Climate Change: Plastic Straws

Despite only comprising an exceptionally small percentage (0.2 percent) of all plastic waste in the United States, plastic straw bans have swept the nation over the past decade [3]. These bans do not have negative consequences in and of themselves, but we must ask ourselves why movements such as this one—which inherently ask the individual to mitigate what has been widely recognized as a corporate, international issue—gain so much traction whereas their more structural-minded counterparts do not. The problem is not the movement itself, but the fact that after individuals engage in micro-level practices, such as cutting out plastic straws, they may feel as though they have done their part and engage with the movement no further. This may explain the low Gen Z and Gen X voting rates mentioned above. It seems as though the solution to a lack of corporate accountability over the past century has been a shift in focus to the individual, with rhetoric regarding the institutional nature of climate change buried under calls to action directed at everyday citizens.


This arm of the movement is reminiscent of greenwashing, or the tendency of companies to pass largely futile environmental policies that have a microscopic effect on emissions in order to gain a reputation for morality [4]. Many corporations simply desire a “green” label that they can place on their products to create the illusion of environmentalism, just as the consequence and perhaps even intention of a straw ban is the temporary appeasement of voters and shifting of blame to relatively insignificant individual consumption. Whether straws are banned does not matter, but the fact that swathes of youths purchased reusable water bottles and straws and yet failed to show up to the polls is indicative of a broader issue with how we frame activism.


Israel: Starbucks

Calls to boycott Starbucks swept the nation after the company filed a lawsuit against Starbucks Workers United for posting a Tweet in support of Palestine following the October 7th attack [5]. Starbucks did fail to extend its support to Palestine, but there has yet to be evidence proving that it funds Israel or the IDF—begging the question of why boycotting Starbucks has become such a popular expression of solidarity with Palestine. Boycotting Starbucks will not resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, but why is it that demands to remove the company from UC campuses, for instance, have dominated whereas the initiatives to contact representatives and vote pale in comparison? There are, indeed, dozens of amazing groups specifically dedicated to improving voter turnout, and it is important to not discount or underestimate their efforts. However, it is bizarre that we are willing to participate in what has become a boycott resulting in a loss of $11 billion but cannot show up to the polls to elect representatives who support reducing funding to Israel [6]. The overwhelming majority of the ritualistic shaming and social sanctioning pertaining to this conflict has not been directed at individuals who do not vote or contact their local representatives, but toward those who purchase from Starbucks and other brands associated with Israel in some capacity. Shame on you, this geopolitical conflict that has taken more and more lives every year since 1948 is worse because you frequented a certain establishment. 


To be clear, we ought to not overstate the impact of voting, especially with respect to geopolitical issues that cannot be shaped too much by American leaders. However, the fact that a boycott of a company that does not even fund Israel has become such a prominent wing of the pro-Palestine movement exemplifies a troublesome trend: citizens are expected to make minor modifications to their lives in order to compensate for a dearth of systemic change that could solely be achieved by participating in politics electorally.  


It must be addressed that this trend is additionally troublesome because it is indicative of our societal tendency to place our trust in the market as a solution to geopolitical issues, often while simultaneously assuming an anti-capitalist stance. Calls to avoid certain restaurants and purchase certain straws are simply expressions of our faith in the efficacy of the market in galvanizing political change, and though frustration with the government is completely reasonable, the market in and of itself is perhaps the most anti-reform segment of society imaginable. Many of us, myself included, will argue that regulations are needed to mitigate the negative externalities inevitable in a capitalist system, but refuse, for some reason, to operate through any avenue besides the most capitalistic ones available. The rugged individualism of previous generations has seemed to reemerge through the belief that a failure to participate in a given boycott or lifestyle choice is not only going to directly exacerbate an issue that is far more complicated and multidimensional than meets the eye, but is going to merit extensive social shaming and serve as a stark indicator of your rejection of the movement in question. It appears that we all must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps —everyone is watching.


[1] Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “2022 Election: Young Voters Have High Midterm Turnout, Influence Critical Races,” 2022. https://circle.tufts.edu/2022-election-center.

[2] United Way NCA. “The Gen Z Activism Survey,” March 5th, 2024. https://unitedwaynca.org/blog/gen-z-activism-survey/.

[3] Gibbens, Sarah. “Plastic Straw Bans Are Spreading: Here’s How They Took over the World.” National Geographic, January 2nd, 2019. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/news-plastic-drinking-straw-history-ban/.

[4] Jordan, Rob. “Do Plastic Straws Really Make a Difference?” Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, September 18th, 2018. https://sustainability.stanford.edu/news/do-plastic-straws-really-make-difference.

[5] Durbin, Dee-Ann. “Starbucks, Workers United Union Sue Each Other in Standoff over Pro-Palestinian Social Media Post.” AP News, October 18th, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/starbucks-workers-united-union-lawsuit-israel-palestinian-f212a994fef67f122854a4df7e5d13f5.

[6] Business Standard. “Starbucks Loses $11 Billion Market Value due to Poor Sales, Boycotts,” December 7th, 2023. https://www.business-standard.com/world-news/starbucks-loses-11-billion-market-value-due-to-poor-sales-boycotts-123120700054_1.html.