#2. Putting "Coolness" Ahead of Reality
I think one of the most frustrating organizations in the world is Teach for America. When described, it sounds like a great idea: Take a bunch of energetic, idealistic college kids and throw them into America's most fucked-up schools, replacing those shitty old curmudgeon teachers with new blood, jump-starting their careers as tomorrow's hardcore super-educators.
Like this, except with a cape.
The problem is that, by any sane metric, it's not working. The TFA volunteers get next to no training, and since teaching is, like, super fucking hard, they also don't get great results: Four out of five Teach for America volunteers quit the industry in the first three years, and the ones that remain don't end up any better than teachers who were taught to be educators the old-fashioned way (TFA claims better statistics on their website and in promotional materials, but they've also admitted that those statistics are based on the volunteers' self-assessment, and TFA's former research director went as far as saying that those numbers wouldn't hold up to rigorous scrutiny). The only difference is that they learned how to be teachers by fucking up in actual, real-life classrooms with no real teachers there to make up the difference. Basically, Teach for America is forcing low-income kids in struggling school districts to subsidize the American Education system by sacrificing their own education. That's like cleaning your car by pouring sugar in the gas tank and driving it off a cliff while blasting Limp Bizkit.
But you don't have to take my word for it: I put on my journalism hat (it also has a beer dispenser in it) and talked to an actual teacher, and she explained how, in many cases, TFA volunteers take jobs from more qualified teachers so the district can save money: TFA joined her district "in a year when we lost a lot of teachers. Good teachers ... it's not like there were teaching positions that desperately needed filling. We had good teachers who wanted to stay." She ended getting inundated with emails from a TFA volunteer desperate for guidance. "He was a good person," she said, "but a desperate and untrained teacher in charge of educational lives. I felt like my emails [helping him] were aiding and abetting a crime."
Despite all that, TFA will be around for a long time, because it sounds good. It promises the kind of life-changing, resume-padding adventure that we make movies about -- an opportunity to write some rad Facebook statuses, nab some sweet photos, and condescendingly drop "I learned as much from them as they learned from me" at parties for the rest of your life. Basically, TFA volunteers get "hip, young activist" cred while people who actually go to graduate school to become actual teachers who actually know what they're doing ... don't.
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"Bro, do you even have a cape?"
I want to be clear that all the TFA volunteers I've ever met are driven, smart, good-hearted people -- but they're also TFA volunteers who went on to become real teachers, and I guarantee that they were total badasses before they did their two years. If I were to speculate, I'd say the people who run TFA have lost sight of their goals in their attempt to navigate the bureaucratic waters that come with running a multimillion-dollar organization. At the end of the day, the fact that TFA is very cool doesn't change the fact that it's not working.
#1. Trying to Outdo Each Other
If you go find an article about any kind of topic deemed "Social Justice-y," like racism, gender issues, poverty, bullying, and, for some reason, bronies, you're pretty much guaranteed to find commenters accusing the writer of being an "SJW" or a "Social Justice Warrior." I generally think that kind of criticism is really fucking stupid, because people who use that term just throw it at any attempt to talk about social issues at all -- but if you go to certain parts of the Internet, you can actually see where the sentiment comes from. I'm looking at you, Tumblr.
It's like an elephant graveyard for rational arguments.
Because Internet activism -- particularly with the weird culture that seems to pervade Tumblr -- isn't about making a difference, or even raising awareness; it's just about proving how superior the writer is to his or her audience. Tumbloggers (or whatever you call them) with blogs like Shutthefuckupsexists.tumblr.com or IWillLiterallyMurderYouIfYouMakeARapeJoke.tumblr.com aren't actually trying to spread awareness or insights. They're just trying to outdo each other, to win this weird competition that has nothing to do with anything but their own egos. They all want to find the new, more nuanced, more complicated social problem ("adult privilege" refers to the injustice that teenage voices aren't valued, and "tall privilege" refers to fuck knows what) that no one else has heard of. They're treating social issues the way hipsters treat bands: using the advantage of knowledge to make it painfully, irrefutably obvious that they are better than you.
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"I bet they're not even wearing capes."
Like I said, I don't have all the answers. But I know that activism isn't about showing off how great you are, and it's not about working off your guilt. In fact, it's not about you at all, and if you forget that, you're just going to alienate people. Wanting to do good, and feeling like you do good aren't enough to make you a "do-gooder" -- some good actually has to have gotten done. But once you've made that good happen, then -- and only then -- are you allowed to start being a condescending ass about it on Facebook.