Illustration | Yilin Zhu

How does media consumption relate to our “brand” of activism?

On October 29, former U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a lecture entitled “What the U.S. Can Learn from Canadian Health Care” at UofT’s Convocation Hall.

In terms of campus events, the hype leading up to this lecture was unprecedented. When tickets went on sale to the general public, seats were sold out within seconds, resulting in a lot of frustrated and disappointed fans.

On the day of the lecture, a long line of ticket holders spiralled around front campus in anticipation. It was not surprising to hear that many people who did not secure tickets were also present, hoping for the chance to catch a glimpse of the U.S. Senator. One pair of individuals who stood right by the front doors held up a sign that read: “Bernie is a strong independent Senator and he doesn’t need any party!”

The lecture was scheduled for 11 AM, but members of the rush line admitted to waiting outside of Con Hall as early as 6 AM. Inside, several people were sporting #FeelTheBern merch and almost everyone had their phones out to snap a shot of the special guest.

While on stage, Sanders received several rounds of applause and numerous standing ovations. This reaction wasn’t undeserved: his lecture was genuine, topical, and inspired. He discussed not only what Americans stand to learn from the Canadian health care system, but also why Canadians should “be a little bit louder” about our beliefs. He highlighted the importance of standing behind our activism and putting our political views into practice.

Sanders also took the opportunity to comment on the dismal state of the current U.S. administration. On the importance of having a free press and in light of the worldwide Fake News phenomenon he said: “Of course, we are trying to get Donald Trump to read the Constitution of the United States.”

In his closing remarks, Professor Greg Marchildon noted that Senator Sanders “received a welcome today in Canada that is normally reserved for celebrity rock stars.” This was something that stuck with me; throughout the entire event, I couldn’t help but notice it.

The lines between politics and celebrity become dangerously blurred when politicians gain significant media following and attention. Even if said politicians propose progressive policies, we tend to get caught up in the social media hype surrounding political figures. It is no secret that during his campaign, Bernie memes circulated the Internet like wildfire (notably, on platforms such as Twitter, Vine, and Instagram.) This kind of representation makes it easy to familiarize ourselves with politicians we’ve deemed the Good Guys. We may grow to like them despite our limited exposure to their policies and platforms, making it easy to forget that it is our responsibility to hold everyone accountable and stay critical of all politicians.

For better or for worse, this certainly isn’t the first time a politician has been turned into a pop icon at the hands of a devoted fandom. The politician in this case becomes akin to just another famous figure we obsess about on the Internet. Perhaps, then, aligning ourselves with “progressive politics” is a trendy, relatively easy thing to do. For most of us, the sharing and “liking” of these kinds of posts doesn’t require any work at all. And although he puts it to good use, Sanders’s white privilege allows him to accept that kind of a spotlight.

I recently got coffee with an old friend who is involved with a lot of community organising. They mentioned that, often, white people who consider themselves “allies” are unaware of the ways in which their privilege plays an intrinsic role in their brand of activism. When white people make online posts that are aligned with the latest trends in “social media activism,” privileged groups need to recognise that they aren’t heroes for doing so, because they aren’t affected by the same oppressive forces that make this level of visibility dangerous for members of racialized communities.

As allies, it is our responsibility to speak out against social injustices. That being said, making a “woke” tweet, turning off our phones and then going to bed with a good conscience isn’t good enough. Allyship isn’t about crafting a self-satisfying online presence. We can’t then congratulate ourselves and assume the label “intersectional feminist” while neglecting to think about the larger implications of discrimination. Allyship is about listening, checking privilege, and never expecting marginalized groups to do the work for us.

Everyone who was fortunate enough to attend Sanders’s lecture had the opportunity to listen to an American leader responsible for driving the conversation on a lot of relevant and progressive issues. Still, I speculate that a lot of people walked away from that lecture more excited about instagramming a picture of the U.S. Senator than they were prepared to implement Sanders’s encouragement to be political in their everyday lives.

I do really like Bernie Sanders. I’m mindful, however, that one of the reasons why he is celebrated for his democratic socialist views is because he is in a position that allows him to be thus celebrated.

When we congratulate Sanders on his progressive values, let’s not forget about the countless activists of colour who endanger themselves in order to fight for a lot of the same causes that Sanders does. Let Bernie’s politics offer insight into the ongoing fight for intersectionality, while remembering that there is still a lot to be learned outside of his platform.