“Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”

I first read this quote by French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau in my twelfth-grade history class, and it immediately resonated with 17-year-old-me, the me who saw injustices everywhere, who would reblog “#FreePalestine” posts on Tumblr and write high school essays about the evils of capitalism and the chains of the patriarchy. There is something very romantic about breaking free of chains; freedom, and the fight for freedom, is an inherently idealized concept.

This urge to overthrow ruling institutions and dismantle unjust societal norms seems to be universal among young people. This may be, in part, because we see the world with fresh eyes, and we see all that is wrong with it, the flaws that our elders have blindly accepted as fact. But part of this drive also comes from the sense of moral superiority that comes with being “woke”, especially online, where tragedies that are trending on Twitter become equally as trendy to talk about.

I am absolutely not faulting young people for being interested in social justice – in fact, I am proud that our generation is so passionate and motivated towards making a better world for themselves and those around them. My only concern is that real issues can often become sidelined when we turn the discourse around them into ‘points’ in a “who’s more socially aware” competition. Take #BlackLivesMatter, which in itself is a powerful and important movement, and which popularized the AAVE*-derived expression “stay woke”.1 Over time, people have somehow turned BLM into a brand, one that is cool and hip to associate yourself with, and “stay woke” has become a trendy hashtag. The Muslim community is guilty of this too — at conferences and in the online world,   or if we just include them as buzzwords and address them in a superficial sense. We must be willing to put in the work required to fight for these causes, before we proudly parade around as ambassadors.

We naively glamourize the fight for equality to the point where we see ourselves as the heroes of a story that, in reality, is not our own. When 17-year-old-me would hear about injustices in the news, my initial thought would be, this is just like the Hunger Games – as if the Hunger Games inspired real life, and not the other way around. As if this real injustice involving real people fits into my romanticized narrative of good and evil and the fight against “the Man” or the government or the system. In reality, we do not have the experiences of others, we have not suffered their hardships, and we do not truly understand the gravity of their situations.

The first time I was jolted out of this fantasy world of good and evil and justice was when Deah, Razan, and Yusor Barakat, young Muslim students from North Carolina, were shot and killed. I remember the days that followed the attack were filled with conversations about gun control and Islamophobia, and I was shocked to find that this made me so profoundly angry – because these three souls were people with lives and families and dreams. They were people I felt like I knew. And yes, there was good and importance in the conversations that came out of their deaths, but is that all they were – debate points in political rhetoric? They did not die so that we could prove a point.

It seems like social activism has turned into a fad, a trend that defines you as an intellectual. The humanity seems to have been stripped from the dialogue – race, gender, and poverty are talked about simply because they are the “thing” to talk about, because talking about them means that we are thoughtful and superior individuals. Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains. Let us keep talking about it, in our Parisian Enlightenment salons and in the comments of our blogs, and wait for the chains to rust.


*AAVE = African American Vernacular English


  1. Garofalo, A. (2016, June 29). What Does ‘Stay Woke’ Mean? BET To Air Documentary On Black Lives Matter Movement. Retrieved January 04, 2018, from http://www.ibtimes.com/what-does-stay-woke-mean-bet-air-documentary-black-lives-matter-movement-2374703

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Joined MY Voice in Grade 10. Now Editor in Chief and a third year Health Sciences student, aspiring for a career in immunology.

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