I may be taking this too personally. February 4th is not just World Cancer Day. It was my father’s birthday. And cancer killed him in 2012.
Personally, I’ve been on a long journey when it comes to cancer activism. A few years ago, participatory memes seemed like a great way to raise awareness and hopefully research funds. But as the years passed, and cancer took another family member, I have become increasingly cynical about the “slacktivism” around cancer and other causes.
The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, here in Canada, means well by its #NoHairSelfie campaign. After all, people shaving their hair in solidarity with people whose cancer treatments cause them to go bald has long been considered a sign of commitment to fundraising and solidarity. (And the PMCF campaign includes a call-to-action for those who wish to go “all the way.”) But by creating an app that allows anyone with a smartphone to create a bald selfie of themselves, have they just created another slacktivist meme?
The more I ponder slacktivism, the more it concerns me. It seems harmless, sure, and does put an issue top-of-mind for a time. But what really motivates people to do good?
Last year, Scott Gilmore wrote in Maclean’s Magazine:
The real root of the slacktivist problem is biological. Our brain has evolved to reward us for perceived altruism. When we think we have helped others, the body releases dopamine and endorphins as a reward to encourage more good behaviour. This chemical motivation pushed us out of the cave to hunt down one more woolly mammoth for our hungry tribe. Unfortunately, modern times confuse the brain and it mistakes actually feeding the starving with re-tweeting #FeedTheStarving.
What is worse, the same biochemistry that rewards us for apparent altruism tricks us into thinking, “We’ve done our bit.” A recent study from the University of British Columbia demonstrated that people who “liked” a cause on Facebook were less likely to donate to that cause. Why? Because, in their minds, they’d already contributed. Their brains had already given them a shot of endorphins and it was time to “help” someone else.
In other words, we’re cheating our conscience by thinking we are making a difference by casually sharing memes, and is some ways we’re cheating the cause as well.
Fundraising for cancer research can make a real difference. Canadian hero Terry Fox, who literally ran himself to death in a fundraising marathon after losing a leg to osteosarcoma, made a huge impact. Thanks to research, the cancer that killed him is survivable today.
By all means, give generously and share messages of hope and support for #WorldCancerDay. There are probably many people, living with cancer, who will appreciate your positive thoughts. But are you sure someone who recently lost their hair in the course of difficult treatment wants to see you laughing it up with a bald selfie, as if that is making their difficult time better? Maybe. Or maybe not.
My dad never lost his hair. Once diagnosed, he was too far gone for major interventions. Instead, we got to watch him weaken and die in the hospital. He would have been 73 today, and he would have been able to meet his 9th grandchild.
Cancer is fucking awful.