Rousing Millennials: Stories, Definitions, and Questions

In Charlotte Robertson’s Opinion editorial Slacktivism: The Downfall of Millennials, she argues an increasing problem caused by the ever growing global awareness that social media provides. She convincingly claims that social media is “single handedly killing historical forms of activism” (129–130). She then brilliantly brings to light that this murder of activism via social media has “allowed us to share a message that we find important, and then step away from it” as we are diverted by the debris floating down our cyber feed (130). In this work Robertson addresses a very specific group of people, the millennials, which provides a framework for her use of specific persuasive rhetorical tools. In other words, had Robertson chosen to speak to our grandparents, she would have applied the rhetorical tools she did in a very different manner. For instance, Robertson wouldn’t have inserted hashtags in her writing because it wouldn’t have appealed to an older audience who is unfamiliar with young fads. Robertson’s argument is effective in convincing the millennials of her point through the methodical use of definition, stories, and questions.

Let’s begin by discussing what definition is and Robertson’s use of it to appeal to her audience. Definition: we as humans are infatuated with this word. We define anything and everything that comes into our lives. We define ourselves, our beliefs, our views, our passions, and much more. We hunger for the understanding that definition brings into our life. Definitions help us establish the parameter of our morals, they give us an anchor point from which to judge and decide what we believe. Heavens! We even define things we can’t (as undefined). Robertson goes away from the traditional dictionary-use of definition and defines activism two times in her article using various words of action, including, “marching, public speaking, protests, physical petitions, and strikes . . . rallying, speeches, emotion” (130–131). This appeals to the reader because it gives them something from which they can judge the proceeding argument. It also enables the reader to conceptualize and form personal opinions about the argument within a certain parameter. Her use of definition was foundational to creating an argument that had logical backing. In addition, Roberson connects very much with the feelings of the individual. Words like “marching,” “protests,” and “rallying” are emotionally charged words that bring a slew of images into the young millennial mind. It may be argued that Robertson’s definition of activism is incomplete; However, Robertson intended it to be that way. She doesn’t want to confine the word activism to a few words in a dictionary, rather she wishes to open the mind of her readers by inserting a few examples of what true activism can be. There is no question that her use of definition adds to the strength and clarity of her message.

In addition to her use of definition, Robertson’s use of stories provides concrete evidence supporting her claim while connecting the hearts and minds of the audience with the hearts and minds of the personas. She told three stories each imbedded with different and power rhetorical tools.

The first, #bringourgirlshome, which spoke of the 300 Nigerian school girls who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram, a rebellious Islamist militant group. Though they received initially world wide support and recognition from many celebrities including Michelle Obama through social media, they were forgotten by the populous within only a few short weeks, leaving behind only those who couldn’t forget, their families.

This story builds Robertson’s ethos though the employment of a national symbol, as well as her pathos by tugging at our heart strings. First, she established authority through the mentioning of Michele Obama, who embodies a strong and vibrant female leader. In addition, she symbolizes change, isn’t she married to the man whose campaign slogan resounded, “Change we can believe in!” The irony lies there in; Robertson uses a national symbol of change to strengthen her argument by describing an instance where she used social media to bring about change but resulted in nothing more than a few emotionally typed words. The employment of Michelle Obama leaves the reader asking, “If an emotional message from America’s first lady won’t bring about change, what effect could a heated twitter message from 22 year old Jane Doe in southern Arizona bring about?” — In addition, the concluding sentences of her article bring the story of the forgotten girls down to a personal level that unequivocally shatters every family-man’s heart, Robertson concludes by appealing to human affection, “The mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends of the Chibok girls have surely not forgotten them.” This one sentence is a powerful emotionally charged statement which validates Robertson’s entire argument by appealing to its reader’s emotions. There are few things more touching, motivating, and persuasive than seeing another human being, one of our own, left in pain because of ignorance.

The second story related speaks of the ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) ice bucket challenge, the campaign’s goals were via social media to educate the populous as well as raise money for those who have fallen victim to this disease. It was neither informative nor lucrative. Robertson uses this story to support the logic of her argument in addition to tugging once again on the millennial heart strings in order to connect more strongly with her audience. By stating the fact that, “The average participant spent more money on the ice than on funding research that could help make the lives of ALS patients better.” Roberson was able to factually, persuasively, and rationally show her readers the ineffective use of social media in facilitating activism. — Robertson’s claim is that that social media is killing activism, she validates this in her story by showing her readers that the people spent more money on ice and buckets than on donations, which leads her readers to assume that in this case social media led to people caring more about funny ice videos than about actively helping those with life threating diseases.

Robertson’s final story leads us to her effective use of questions. She tells of the recent shooting of “Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager” who was shot and killed by a police officer, which was broadcasted over all of the popular social media networks of the time. Though this story is very short Robertson concludes by the use of four effective questions that leaves her audience wondering what will be done, in addition to considering their personal use of social media. She asks, “How quickly will we forget this? — What atrocity will come next to divert our attention? — How can we create social change when we reuse to devote time and thought to our action? — Who is really listening to us when the only voice we are perfecting is stuck inside a computer?” These are four introspective questions that she allows the reader to answer for themselves. These types of questions are very effective when asked with the right back drop because the reader doesn’t feel like the author is pushing his or her ideas on them, rather, it enables the reader to understand how the author feels, while still allowing the reader to form his or her own opinions using his or her own logic.

This isn’t the only use of questions. Questions have many uses and are a powerful means of facilitating logical metacognitive thinking, like the four questions mentioned above. In addition they invite the reader to an emotional discourse within themselves and give the audience a sense of urgency. It should also be noted that Robertson concludes all three of her stories with questions in order to leave her audience thinking for themselves.

Let’s rewind to #bringthegirlshome. The final words to her readers following her painstaking comment about the girls’ families reads, “What did our momentary, fleeting compassion mean to them?” this is a shot right at the reader’s heart saying, “What good were all those heated comments on twitter? The girls are still suffering every day and everyone’s forgotten and moved on to obsessing over the super bowl.” This is a question crafted and aimed for the reader’s heart. It hurts for a moment as we realize many of us have been guilty from time to time of forgetting about others in need.

Now, let’s jump back to Robertson’s story about Michael Brown. Here she uses a question that is very time sensitive to her readers, “How quickly will we forget?” This is a question that applies right now. Questions are effective in writing, because they give the reader permission to stop and consider that which the author is writing about. In this instance, it is clear that Robertson is implying that if we (the millennials) keep in our “slacktivist” ways of using social media to solve problems, we too will forget Michael just as we forgot the 300 girls. Robertson lets this stew in her audience, she lets them come to this conclusion on their own. Her questions leave the reader feeling that something must be done, soon. Robertson’s questions are powerful not only because of their introspective aspect, but also because of her timely use.

Therefore it is clearly evident that Robertson was highly effective in addressing the millennials because she used rhetorical tools which resonated with her young audience. She defined what activism should mean by the use of descriptive verbs. She also told emotionally engaging stories, and finally she asked questions that inspired introspection, which were aimed at rousing the target audience to true activism. The motivating nature of these lively provocative rhetorical elements inspire us young millennials, at least it did the one sitting here.