On kayaktivism, and other recent ‘-tivisms’
Reporting on a recent protest that took place at a Trump-owned golf course, the New York Times wrote of ‘self-proclaimed “kayaktivists”’ who took to the waters around the course with banners and placards. “Kayaktivist” is a portmanteau word – a combination, of course, between ‘kayak’ (a type of canoe) and ‘activist’ (someone who ‘advocates or engages in action, spec. [who] undertakes vigorous political or social campaigning’. The word has a very specific referent – after all, how many kayak-borne protests do you read about in the news? Nevertheless, this is not the first instance of ‘kayaktivists’ entering into the mainstream media. The origin of the word seems to be a Greenpeace protest in 2015, when kayakers formed a blockade around a Shell oil rig as part of a larger protest.
‘Kayaktivist’ is only the latest in string of similar words derived from ‘activist’, words which seem to have grown in popularity with the rising political cultures of social media and the internet. The word ‘hacktivism’ is now defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, as ‘the practice of gaining unauthorized access to computer files or networks in order to further social or political ends’; dictionary examples of ‘hacktivist’ go back as far as 1995. Like ‘kayaktivist’, the neatness of the rhymed syllable makes it an appealing and catchy neologism, which is an important part of a good portmanteau – consider the traction of the modern examples of ‘bromance’ or ‘frenemy’. Hacktivism has reached a point of relative popularity today, despite the fact that its use is fraught with complexities; as with the terms ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’, one person’s ‘hacktivist’ social action can appear to someone else as an anti-social and criminal activity. Indeed, the recent global cyber-attack that affected NHS computers was labelled by some as ‘hacktivism’, though its goals were financial and not political (‘cyber-attack’, incidentally, is also dated by the OED back to the mid-1990s).
It is likely partly because of the popularity of ‘hacktivism’, and online political action, that the word ‘slacktivism’ also started to be taken up; traceable back as far as 1998, it describes ‘a person who supports a political or social cause via the Internet (e.g. by signing an online petition), and whose actions are characterized as requiring little time, effort, or commitment, or as providing more personal satisfaction than public impact’. This is an important turn in the trend for ‘-tivist’ words: ‘slacktivist’ is a depreciative label, used as a put-down either by people who oppose a particular protest, or else by those who think that greater action might be needed. ‘Slacktivism’ in turn paved the way for the more-recent ‘clicktivism’, which narrows the scope of internet-based political action down to the simplest acts of signing online petitions or sharing articles and information on social media. ‘Clicktivism’, of course, comes with a built-in irony, playing off the idea of political ‘activity’ with the relatively passive action of clicking.
A more recent word, one that has not yet made it into the dictionary, takes the play on ‘activist’ in a different set of directions. ‘Craftivism’ is a surprisingly popular kind of activism that focuses on craft-based practices – knitting, sewing, even baking. It can be traced back to craftivism blogger Betsy Greer in the early 2000s, whose later book Knitting for Good! knits together the anti-consumer elements of craft – hand-made, and not mass-produced, objects – with political activism. It is also a proudly off-line set of practices, and it thus defies the charges of slacktivism and clicktivism (though it plays with its own ironies, as a blend of domestic crafts and potent political action). An especially popular form of craftivism is ‘yarn bomb’ or ‘yarnstorm’, both of which are phrases that have made it into the OED: ‘To cover or decorate (a public object or monument) with colourful knitted or crocheted items and motifs, as a form of street art.’
A last word that will be worth watching is ‘fracktivist’, used on social media to refer to environmentalists opposed to fracking – the process of attempting to extract oil or gas from deep within rock by injecting in water at high pressures. Fracktivist is another term that hasn’t yet found a space in the dictionary, but as debates continue to grow over the risks involved in fracking – which range from the contamination of water supplies, to its perceived contribution to global warming – we’re certain to find an increase in reports of fracktivism in the newspapers.
It is not clear if ‘kayaktivist’ will have the staying power as a word to make its way into the dictionary; it certainly has some way to go before it joins older ‘-tivist’ words like ‘constructivist’, ‘relativist’, ‘nativist’, or, the root word of all the modern ‘-tivisms’, ‘activist’ itself. But as digital technology and social media transform the way we engage in – and talk about – politics and political action, we may be welcoming more and more of these words into the dictionary. If you’re a protestor who can’t get to sleep in the evenings, are you then an insomniactivist? If you protest against brandy, is that cognac-tivism? Feel free to suggest your own in the comments section below.