2018 witnessed a surge of corporations come out in support of the LGBTQ+ community, namely through a consumerist approach to social justice activism. UK high streets, my hometown included, were ablaze with rainbow flags and Pride merchandise, all of which were advertised as celebrating the LGBTQ+ community in an attempt to promote a queer-friendly culture.
The cynical amongst us will likely have seen through these transparent attempts to cash-in on a social cause surrounding the increased visibility, and celebration, of LGBTQ+ individuals. For many, however, the overt commercialisation of Pride was disregarded or, rather, forgiven due to the fact that the abundance of rainbow flags and/ or slogans relating to the LGBTQ+ community were conducive to an atmosphere in which gay people felt accepted and recognised by society.
Herein lies the issue surrounding fake social activism, a pattern of behaviour that has become increasingly prevalent due to the rise in contemporary activism, a form of advocacy largely centred upon social media and a need to self-promote whilst fighting injustice.
Within the realm of LGBTQ+ activism, the ‘fake’ strand stems primarily from the commercialisation of Pride by retailers and corporations who have calculated that accepting gay individuals will, both, help to improve their image and increase their revenue. Given that the LGBTQ+ community has been entangled in an ongoing fight to eradicate homophobic hate crime, it is only natural that certain members might welcome branding that incorporates the rainbow logo, even if said rainbow-washing is merely a shallow attempt to prove a company’s allyship. This example of recuperation, that has, regretfully, become commonplace, is symptomatic of a larger issue concerning cultural appropriation, a form of colonialism that enables the co-opting of historically radical ideas.
The increased appropriation of gay culture owes largely to the fact that social activism has become the latest on-trend accessory, with individuals, both, online and offline, desperate to flaunt their altruistic tendencies for all the world to see.
Social media, for the most part, has engendered this shift in social activism, as can be seen in the large numbers of online influencers who are continually profiting off the back of their ‘woke’ Instagram posts. Online bloggers, of which there is a never-ending stream, are problematic for an array of reasons, namely, due to their perpetual promotion of excessive consumerism. Additionally, they cast light on the growing trend surrounding the newfound cool of social activism and the troubling reality concerning activist appropriation.
The phenomenon that is ‘trendy’ activism has paved the way for an influx of individuals who feign activism; that is, those who partake in contemporary activist behaviours – for example, purchasing a t-shirt depicting ‘I am a Feminist’ from retailers such as Urban Outfitters – despite being wholly uninformed on issues surrounding Feminism. This pattern of behaviour, which spans across all forms of social justice, raises questions surrounding authenticity in the outward display of social consciousness.
What is so galling about individuals aspiring to join the cool liberal club through activism is the fact that many such individuals fail to hold a pure agenda in relation to their activism. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to differentiate between those who are genuinely interested in effecting change and those who merely engage with social activism because of a desire to accumulate social clout. Online influencers, for example, Zoella, who has a history of, both, homophobic and transphobic dialect, are often guilty of the latter and, yet, still capitalise off the experience of marginalised groups.
Despite the aforementioned qualms surrounding rainbow-capitalism and attempts to enhance one’s own image through online activism, there is no denying that the act of pandering to gay people through Pride enables universal recognition of gay rights as a high-profile issue. Furthermore, consumer power can often translate into political action; and, so, whilst the co-opting of gay-culture, coupled with virtue signalling, may, rightly so, be deemed inappropriate by many, a consequentialist approach to social activism may enable one to overlook the exploitation of marginalised groups within society and, similarly, the hijacking of politically radical ideas such as queer liberation.