What is Digital Activism: Online Causes

There are three points I am trying to explore in this piece. One, I am groping around through words, and through logic and telling myself that I don’t believe in having a cause in order to represent someone or something.

Secondly, my definition of what a cause is or should be, is not yet clear. I am trying to understand if a cause is considered legitimate by virtue of government sanctions, mass approval or by the power of the represented themselves, whose problems reach a critical mass for it to be considered as a cause.

Thirdly, who we define as the represented or the benefiters of a cause, is also rather ambiguous. Are we really representing the other – or is it all an exercise to define who we are and what we would like to represent.

I recently pitched a research-based field study proposal for an archive that would, I suppose, “benefit” certain communities which we term “mariginalised”. The archive would have been a collective effort by the ethnographic-anthropological community as well as linguists-translators, researchers, cultural historians and performance arts groups to cull and put together academic research and papers onto an online space which could then be “used”, “utilized”,
“harnessed”, “appropriated”, “understood”, “preserved” by the very community who form the subject of research.

The communities who formed my subject of observation and focus were the Indian transgenders, the folk artists and performers, the tribals and native / indigenous forest dwellers. The archive would be a storehouse of their performance and celebratory “acts”, helping them place their performances or rituals or religious practices in context and the context in which the larger world views these “rituals”.

I believe it is important that the subject or the object of an ethnographic study understands how the world – the analytical academic world, to be exact – perceives them and “uses” their observations to form a thesis or point of reference to understand society. How can the “observed” community not be an active participant in formulating and fostering studied perceptions on their lives?

Barriers to my archival idea did not come from traditional sources. I have received positive feedback from folklore support organisation, NGOs and archival centers. The real barriers came from the minds of people whom I like to think as innocent, the naive and the sceptics: How is this your business? they asked, and hastened to probe my motivations for “taking up the cause” of the “marginalised”.

How is this my business and why? How did I come about thinking about the “welfare” of a group of people, certain communities, which don’t participate in the mainframe “political” framework of our country? Why did I believe that these groups needed to be heard or represented by a particular act or process of representation, in this case, positing an online archive of their ritualistic performances, when there are so many other important and urgent ways of representing them. Secondly, who decides who needs representation and in what form and when, why, where and how. Do we really need a government or body or a collective to decide whether a represented community is legitimate?

Most importantly, do the communities we represent look at our representation of them as legitimate or do they have other ways of seeing? Perhaps, they just perceive it as another academic exercise between the subject and object.

Can I get away from answering all these questions by saying, “I don’t have a motivation”, or rather, I don’t “NEED” a motivation to represent a particular group. The form of representation I choose for them is not what I consider as altruistic or charitable or anything real that might necessarily change their economic or social statuses in the near future. I somehow have a problem with the idea of a crusade or movement where individuals or groups project their intentions as originating out of charitable intentions. I don’t seem to relate to it.

So, I have located the problem in defining “cause” itself. Does a cause originate our of void, slowly and then suddenly propelled by the increasing functional anamolies of the under-represented group? Or does it find slow or sometimes sudden fame by virtue of it finding legitimacy, valdiity and representation by the supporter? Is this a ‘chicken-or-egg – what came first’ dilemma?

I studied Performance Art in college and fell in love with it. The finer nuances of differences between an act, a spectacle, a ritual and performance astonished my mind. I felt like I was looking at a living prism. I wanted to find a way to capture this prism – through documentation – so that it is forever understood and made sense of. It’s for the love of documenting a phenomena and understanding it. It’s for a simple fact that here is a community or a group that simply does not comprehend that their existence in society occupies a certain latitude and longitude points in society, but they willingly and unknowingly contribute to reams of research so that the world can comprehend their lives and or categorise their existence.

Honestly, I wouldn’t know if such an archive would be useful. Can usefulness really be a yardstick to decide if a cause and its “contents” are worthy of being represented and pursued and found wanting of more coverage and pity? However, a cause as I see it doesn’t require 1,000 signatures or a critically approved mass endorsing it. I am “championing the cause” of ‘documentation’, which at a basic level I feel is vital to define and identify who we are and how we make sense of what we are, by the “virtue” of documenting certain elements and leaving out the rest of our existence.

Let me not fall prey to that yardstick. Let me not defend my “cause” or the lack of it. Let’s put the question to vote by asking the ones who we think we represent. Let’s explain to them that the world – the other – perceives them as a ‘cause’ to be taken up. Are they really the ones being represented and saved, or is it ourselves that we are saving by giving ourselves a “cause” and “label”? If you take my case, and my idea for an archive, I think the truth will out itself. I am saving no one, but myself.

The quotation marks are used throughout this piece because lately, I am quite unsure about the appropriate situations where one is “supposed” to exercise political correctedness.

– Nilofar Ansher


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