I think I’ve coined a new phrase: “junk-food activism.” It’s any awareness-raising activity that’s designed to get the participant to feel empathy for or show solidarity for a particular group or cause, without actually doing anything to fix the problem. (Examples: sleeping under a bridge for one night to show solidarity for the homeless, or spending only $7/day on food for a week to understand what it is to be hungry, or wearing a colored ribbon to show support for a cause.)

What’s wrong with these activities? Nothing per se, except that they don’t go far enough. If the activity were always followed up by meaningful action — say, volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving money or in-kind donations to a local food bank — it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But many of these exercises do not even suggest that such follow-up action be taken. Thus in some cases junk-food activism can be worse than taking no action at all, because the participants walk away feeling as though they’ve done something significant, even noble, to further the cause — yet nothing has been done to improve the situation. It’s like empty-calories compassion.

Imagine if a woman were drowning in a local river, and on the bank there had gathered a throng of well-meaning people stopping random passersby and saying, “Drowning is a terrible way to die. Come join us in raising awareness! We’re going to wade out into the river to feel how cold it is, and maybe put our faces in the water so we can understand what she must be going through!” OK, fine, but in the meantime the victim’s lungs are filling with liquid and her life is slipping away. It only takes one person to push through the throng, ignoring the multitudinous cries of compassionate solidarity in favor of swimming out at personal risk in order to pluck a dying soul from the current.

Don’t get me wrong; I think one ought to take the time to discover the social and spiritual ills that plague humanity in general and one’s community in specific. But I think it’s far more important to do what can be done to ameliorate such ills. It’s not enough to recognize the weak, the weary, the downtrodden all around you, if you’re not willing to strengthen, shelter and lift up — to get up and do. Compassion for others — charity in the classic sense of pure love for one’s fellow man — is an emotion designed to spur one to take action, not merely to be an actor.

And that’s all I hafta say about that.

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