Etymology

Warren Clements of The Globe and Mail is the latest language columnist to discover the words slacktivist and slacktivism.

The Globe and Mail is based in Toronto, so it's a bit of a shame that Clements misses the local angle: that word slacktivism was coined by a native son — by Dwight Ozard of London, Ontario, in fact.

If you're searching for the origin of this word, Google tends to direct you to Paul McFedries delightful Word Spy site, and to the 2002 entry on the word slacktivism. This is where Clements winds up, relaying McFedries' earliest citation of a Feb. 27, 2001, Newsweek article and his note that:

This shortened form of the phrase slacker activism had a brief appearance in a Usenet posting in 1995, and then didn't appear again until 2000 in a discussion concerning people whose idea of activism is clicking the "Forward" button in their e-mail software. …

CStone95 That's certainly the dominant prevailing meaning of the word, but Clements also digs up another early use that suggests something rather different. A 2000 article in U-Wire, he notes, refers to "television host, filmmaker, author and self-confessed slacker-activist (slacktivist, if you will) Michael Moore." Whether or not you're a fan of Michael Moore's, he's clearly someone whose idea of activism goes far beyond forwarding e-mails.

 That description of Moore gets closer to the original use of the word. I can't say "original" with 100-percent certainty, mind you, since McFedries doesn't tell us the context of that 1995 Usenet citation, but as you can see from the scans here, "slacktivism" was the title of a seminar series that Dwight and I gave at the Cornerstone Festival in 1995.

Cornerstone is the annual music festival and refugee camp organized by the Jesus People USA every summer on farmland in western Illinois. The word "organized" there probably isn't quite right, actually, it's four days of tents, mud and rock & roll held together by providence and hippy optimism. It's probably the closest thing this side of the pond to Greenbelt, if that helps to give you an idea.

CStone95zoom The festival is always on the weekend nearest July 4, but the C-Stone people needed our seminar title and summary/sales-pitch much earlier for their publicity materials. Those included print ads and articles in their own magazine and others as well as those broadsheet newsprint mailers that they send out to a few hundred thousand people starting around March. So thanks to Cornerstone's publicity apparatus, such as it is, Dwight's word "slacktivism" got splashed about fairly widely in early 1995, and was then given another boost at the festival itself, which was attended by 60,000 or so people as well (most of whom, of course, did not attend our seminars). It thus seems likely that Dwight's coinage preceded — and may have been the source — of the word's first appearance on Usenet.

Our "slacktivism" seminars were not about finding minimal effort ways to feel self-righteously smug, as per the online-petition, e-mail-forwarding dominant sense of the word after it re-emerged. We chose the theme of "slacker activism" (which Dwight shortened, despite my objection that it sounded gimmicky) as a way of confronting the use of "slacker" as an epithet by Baby Boomers who had heard of, but not seen, Richard Linklater's 1991 movie and had taken its existence as confirmation of their suspicion that you kids these days are lazy and nowhere near as concerned and committed as they were back in the '60s. We countered that with dozens of stories of then-young people doing difficult, necessary and beautiful work all over the country, work that by its nature had to be done on a small, personal scale. The direction we were suggesting was bottom-up rather than top-down; less marching in the streets and more The Man Who Planted Trees.

At some point I should probably dig through my old notes from those seminars and retell some of those stories here. My point today though is just this: Until someone comes up with evidence of a pre-1995 use of the term "slacktivism," I'm going to consider it Dwight's word and to continue using it the way he did.

  • Lori

    You’re confusing entomology and etymology

    Sort of on topic, I actually have this problem. I know the meaning of both words and can always type or write the correct one. However, if I have to say either word out loud it is a total crap shoot which one will come out of my mouth.

    Maybe we can have a flame war about Reagan! (Or El Salvador or Iran-Contra or air-traffic control or…)

    I’ll play.
    Reagan is revered for ending the Cold War, but even assuming that his contribution isn’t overrated he was still bad for the country. We could have survived another decade or two of the Cold War far more easily than we have lived with the horrible domestic policies he set in motion.
    I flat refuse to refer to National Airport here in DC by his name.
    I’m going to leave El Salvador alone.

  • cjmr’s husband

    We could have survived another decade or two of the Cold War far more easily
    Considering that El Salvador was the Reaganite idea of fighting the Cold War, I’m not so sure.
    You do have to wonder what Saint Reagan would have thought of wasting all that money to name things after him. If he would even have noticed.
    (BTW, I was making a deliberate pun, I’m very interested in linguistics, and am only vaguely interested in crawlyology)

  • Dorothy

    Me, I’m a proud member of Generation Jones.
    And now I’m jonesing for a donut.

  • Jeff

    [[I flat refuse to refer to National Airport here in DC by his name.]]
    Especially after he made flying so much more unsafe by firing the Air Traffic Controllers.

  • hapax

    Lori: I’m going to leave El Salvador alone.
    Since this is my day to play with fire by putting links into Typepad: “Don’t you think it’s time to leave El Salvador?”
    Third best PPM song evah.

  • cjmr’s husband

    I’d never heard of Generation Jones. They must not be important :-p

  • Lori

    Since this is my day to play with fire by putting links into Typepad

    Well, your part worked. You didn’t break Slacktivist and the link went where you wanted it to go. The song just won’t play for anyone who isn’t a member of the site.
    It is a good song though.

    Considering that El Salvador was the Reaganite idea of fighting the Cold War, I’m not so sure.

    I am absolutely the last person in the world to defend Reagan’s Latin American “adventures” but I don’t think they posed the same problem to the US that the domestic mess has. I think Reagan’s domestic policies moved the domestic Overton Window far more than his foreign affairs policy moved it for our international policy.
    I think that our recent international screw-ups are actually a product of our jacked up post-Reagan domestic crap more so than bad foreign policy in and of itself.

  • Dorothy

    *Flings half-eaten donut at cjmr’s husband. Misses by a few hundred miles.*

  • Jeff

    [[I am absolutely the last person in the world to defend Reagan's Latin American "adventures" but I don't think they posed the same problem to the US that the domestic mess has.]]
    I’d say there is one major repercussion. The whole torture-”disappear”-secret prison mentality came from Cheney and Negroponte’s handling of Latin America. That these two ghouls implemented Pinochet’s policies shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

  • Lori

    I’d say there is one major repercussion. The whole torture-”disappear”-secret prison mentality came from Cheney and Negroponte’s handling of Latin America. That these two ghouls implemented Pinochet’s policies shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

    One of the unfortunate side effects of grad school is that I have only 2 modes for talking about US Foreign Policy—quite short or seminar.
    Trying to stick with short,
    If our domestic policy wasn’t such a disaster A)those 2 wouldn’t have been in power and B) even if they somehow managed to get into positions of power it would have been far less likely that everyone who mattered would have simply rolled over and let them do what they wanted.

  • djstn

    I’ve always thought that the boomers’ inability to contemplate a world in which they are not the most important thing in dungarees is part of the attraction of modern pre-millennial dispensationalism. The world simple can’t go on without them.

  • http://accidental-historian.blogspot.com Geds

    we think Nirvana is seriously overrated
    This. Also, and this is probably just a growing up in Chicago in the nineties and going to the same high school as Billy Corgan thing, but so were the Smashing Pumpkins.
    But Pearl Jam is awesome!
    Agreed. Soundgarden’s still the bestest, though.
    What was really fun — those posts would ALWAYS be the most civilized threads. I think pie came after the TFWOTs.
    Agreed. They were also usually the best example of our ability to derail any thread within two posts. Fred would ask, “Picard or Kirk?” and someone would immediately respond, “John Sheridan,” or, “The Doctor. He was kind of a starship captain.”
    Those were the days…

  • Amaryllis

    @Perry: oh, thank you.
    *looks up “Generation Jones” *
    Oh! Maybe I’m not a Boomer after all! Maybe I don’t have to die in a blizzard quite yet!
    I feel better now. :)

  • Froborr

    I’m flying out of National Airport on Saturday. There is no such thing as Reagan Airport. There will never be such a thing as Reagan Airport. Ideally, there’d be the National Reagan Monument. Which would be his grave. And people would be encouraged to use it as a restroom.
    Every single policy enacted by the Reagan administration desperately needs to be undone, with one exception: amnesty for undocumented immigrants with no criminal record and jobs. That should be done every couple of years.

  • http://jamoche.livejournal.com jamoche

    I flat refuse to refer to National Airport here in DC by his name.
    Texas A&M renamed the street on which the Former Student’s Association receives mail to “George Bush Drive”.
    Now, I’m an Aggie. I like Aggie jokes as much as the next person. But there’s a limit, and if they think I’m going to do anything that involves writing that name on an address – like, say, financial contributions – they’re out of luck.

  • http://thewoefulbudgie.blogspot.com/ Salamanda

    Agreed. They were also usually the best example of our ability to derail any thread within two posts. Fred would ask, “Picard or Kirk?” and someone would immediately respond, “John Sheridan,” or, “The Doctor. He was kind of a starship captain.”
    Yeah, and let’s not forget the Inigo Montoya Weekend Blowout of Aught-seven.

  • Froborr

    The Doctor? Sure. But Sheridan? Really? B5 was the superior show, but as far as messianic space station commanders go, I’d take Sisko over Sheridan any day. Sheridan bought WAY too much into his own mythos, and wasn’t anywhere near troubled enough by the times he had to choose the lesser evil.

  • cjmr’s husband

    Glowy Jesus Doctor laughs at your Messianic Sheridan.
    My name is Inigo Minbari. You killed my mentor. Prepare for ten years of interstellar war.

  • Froborr

    Glowy Jesus Doctor laughs at your Messianic Sheridan.

    It’s not the messianism that bugs me, it’s Sheridan’s arrogance and the way his “Alliance” uses trickery and the threat of force to impose an unwanted peace. F’rinstance, “offering” to “let” Earth join (1) immediately after an Alliance armada has blown up all the orbital defenses and (2) while a large fleet of the most advanced ships left since the Shadow War ended is flying directly over the heads of Earth’s leaders.
    Whereas the Doctor has been elected President of Gallifrey, in response to which he ran away as fast as he could, and asked to command a massive interstellar armada against a mysterious enemy that turned out to be (because RTD couldn’t make up an interesting alien to save his life) the Daleks, AGAIN — and the Doctor’s response was to run off with Donna to face the “mysterious enemy” by themselves.
    In short: the Doctor doesn’t want power, hates having it, and can therefore be trusted. Sheridan, on the other hand, is power-hungry and self-righteous.
    …I really wish Sinclair had stayed as the captain. I’m sure they could have given him some kind of personal connection to the Shadows — a parent or sibling not mentioned in the first season that could take Anna Sheridan’s place. Sinclair would *never* have pulled the abuses of authority Sheridan did.

  • Jason

    @Froborr
    While the Daleks are cool and the Cybermen are also cool, I wish they wouldn’t show up ever 3rd episode like they do on the new series. They were used just enough on the old one. Give them a rest on the new one. I’m not tired of the Sontarans yet, but I have a feeling they will be overused on the new series eventually too.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    I have a list of “get you quickly up to speed” episodes for new Who viewers. “Dalek” is on there, for the chemistry between Rose and Nine, and the close look not just at a Dalek’s mutated body but inside its mutated mind. Unfortunately, the creators would choose to overuse both Rose and the Daleks horribly as the series went on, and now I almost groan to see them.
    Speaking of Nine, is it just me, or does he seem almost relieved to regenerate at the end of his season? It’s as if he feels he’s atoned and he can finally move on.
    Some rather unconventional Daleks.

  • Alex R

    Fred, just fyi, but the first Usenet reference to “slacktivism” was indeed to the lectures you and Dwight gave at the Cornerstone festival, from the group rec.music.christian: http://bit.ly/17sUQl

  • Jeff

    [[Some rather unconventional Daleks.]]
    If the Daleks had looked like that, [a] I would have watched a LOT longer and [b] there wouldn’t be any stairs jokes.

  • http://jamoche.livejournal.com jamoche

    @MikhailBorg: “Unfortunately, the creators would choose to overuse both Rose and the Daleks horribly as the series went on”
    Yes. Having one Dalek survive the Time War – something so potentially disastrous that the Doctor *wiped out his entire race* to end it, not to mention the Daleks (and the Fourth Doctor, knowing the future history of the Daleks, couldn’t bring himself to wipe them out when they were first created, so that was *big*) – was awesome, because it showed just how far the Doctor had been pushed; he was practically acting like a Dalek himself (“Exterminate!”)
    And then they come back, which invalidates the Doctor’s sacrifice of all the Time Lords and a big chunk of his sanity. And then they come back *again*. And then, as if we didn’t already have proof that RTD has no imagination (let’s see, shall we go to an exotic time-and-space, or should we go back to Rose’s council flat and her annoying mum?), they come back *again*.
    Moffet could show us fear in a handful of dust. RTD can’t do it with an entire fleet of Daleks.

  • Neohippie

    Now me, I thought up the word “neohippie” back in 1996, before I knew other people had independently thought it up themselves.
    And I thought I was so clever. :-/

  • penny

    MM:”Some of us are Children of the ’80s. Our first national event was when Reagan was shot, our first tragedy was Challenger, we had perms and big hair (even the guys) until ’89, and we think Nirvana is seriously overrated. We missed Woodstock, but we loved the clothes. We are of many faiths, but our fastest shortcut to a religious experience is cranking up “Livin’ on a Prayer.” (There’s a video online somewhere with Wil Wheaton singing this at a con earlier this year. If you’re one of us, you need to watch it. If you’re not, it wouldn’t mean anything to you.) Robot Chicken was made entirely to entertain us. Gen X ended just before us, and Gen Y is made up of our annoying kid brothers and sisters. Also, we know all the words to all the Schoolhouse Rock songs and we still think they’re funny. :)”
    Ya know, as a child of the 80s and teen of the 90s, that rings more true to me than whatever else I’m supposed to be, although occasionally I consider myself first of the Millennials. To put it another way — I watched all the cartoons being made into summer blockbusters when they were on tv for the *first* time, dangit. (There is nothing so strange as going to the Transformers movie and being at least 10 years older than everyone else there. I mean, those kids were too young to have even seen Beast Wars (ugh ugh ugh)!)
    Although Animaniacs would possibly a bit more defining for my gen. than Schoolhouse Rock?

  • coffeedryad

    MM and Penny, right on! ‘Fess up, who else wanted to be Jem when they grew up? *blushes*


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