This past year has shown us regime change — or, at least the toppling of enduring regimes — in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. It’s also shown us that ongoing resistance in countries like Syria doesn’t incite the same sort of global absorption.
The unremitting internal violence in the country has not only passed its year mark (protests began on Jan. 26, 2011), but it’s also intensified, precipitating thousands of deaths of men, women and children, of soldiers and civilians. The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and Ba’ath Party rule has thus culminated in a degree of brutality unseen even during the worst moments of the Egyptian revolution.
But it can be safely said that the conflict in Syria is only a segment of the manifold crises that have wounded both America, and the world, in recent. The Arab Spring, Trayvon Martin’s death, Joseph Kony — these are the people and the events that have gripped us in a fleeting fever. On campus and in the cyberverse, we see the extent of our activist-esque distress: we organize marches and hold workshops and have conversations in the classroom, over dinner, and on blogs. And then we wake up the next day and some other awful thing has happened and our compassion and indignation is re-reformulated and redistributed to another cause.
In the case of Syria’s turmoil, Swat STAND staged a February call-in — in recognition of the conflict’s year anniversary — where students were invited to make a call to their senators urging them to support the Syrian Human Rights Accountability Act. But beyond this tangible (and literal) call for change, the escalating violence in Syria hasn’t prompted any further reaction from the campus community.
We might say that our short attention spans are the product of the information era. That our unwillingness to invest substantial time and brainpower into one particular issue is thanks to the advent of abbreviating technology like YouTube and Twitter and news aggregators; that the ephemerality of our awareness is not because we don’t care, but because we try to care too much about everything.
We fork our anger and effort in ways that don’t do justice to any one cause. We diverge concern and resources in an attempt to, by some means, tackle those monumental issues facing our country, our cultures and our collective society. The problem with that, however, couples the great problem of our personal attitudes and assumptions and the greater problem of how those issues can be addressed.
The first dilemma points to the somewhat privileged and rooted belief that we are obligated to do something, anything. There is no apparent moral quandary here — as human beings, we should be compelled to contribute to humanity, to ensure that the communal good is realized wherever and whenever possible.
The second dilemma of how we can solve those issues then exposes the faults in that initial obligation — our desire to act isn’t always modeled after the template of human obligation. Rather, it falls prey to our desire to act in order to seem as if we were working off of that model. In other words, we can explain our short attention span (for example, the week in which Google search results for “Kony 2012” peaked, prostrated then plateaued) by acknowledging that the exigency of certain events are not more important than other events; that we simply don’t care enough.
Otherwise, our cursory fascination with Uganda and the use of child soldiers would have manufactured itself as a concrete and genuine endeavor to contribute to the larger discourse on corrupt African politics. Otherwise, our short-lived preoccupation with revolt in the Middle East would have seen a material outrage with the increasing disorder that is devastating Syria.
Our brief bouts of activism are no reflection of the values we claim to subscribe to. They are no illustration of the people we want to be, or should be. But they exist, and they threaten to disable any real possibility for progress. The initial enrapture with a 140-character tweet about some atrocity in some other part of the world should then be, not just another bit of news, but a mobilizing force in engrossing and inciting us, compelling us to act urgently and wholly. That’s the sort of activism that achieves its goals and leaves a legacy. The sort of activism that makes a real change in the world.