#WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed Are “Hashtag Activism” at Its Best

2014 hasn’t been a great year for retaining faith in humanity, particularly for those of us who spend a good chunk of our time online. In the last two weeks alone, we’ve seen the Internet used to violate women’s privacy and harass female gamers in the name of a “movement.” The response to TMZ’s leaked video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancé Janay Rice in a Las Vegas elevator, however, prompted a demonstration of the Internet’s all-too-underutilized potential to use its signature powers — providing a microphone, starting conversations, and above all, demanding attention — for good.

Created by writer and activist Beverly Gooden yesterday, #WhyIStayed preempts the question outsiders will inevitably ask Janay Rice by letting thousands of women answer for her — and more importantly, themselves. “Why did you stay?” is, of course, a thinly veiled version of, “You shouldn’t have stayed.” Gooden’s tag makes the savvy move of taking an inquiry that’s meant to be rhetorical and offering a flood of genuine, valid answers:

Then there’s the corollary tag #WhyILeft, in which survivors explain what it took for them to leave abusive relationships:

https://twitter.com/lunaluvbad/status/509355068458823680

As with the #YesAllWomen tag that took hold this spring, #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft target a common misconception and attack it with sheer numbers. The tags now contain thousands of stories from survivors, whose perspectives are often conspicuously missing from discussions of high-profile cases of domestic abuse. The result is a whole that’s much harder to ignore than its parts. By the time Janay Rice released a statement defending her husband this morning via Instagram, #WhyIStayed had successfully redirected any skepticism, victim-blaming, or general backlash before they even began.

Within 24 hours, #WhyIStayed became a case study in what happens when tools like Twitter fall into the right hands. Twitter’s accessibility and meme-friendliness allow for rabid trolling and cheesy jokes alike, but they also enable people directly affected by domestic violence to insert themselves into a news story and change that story’s trajectory. The ability to effect that change comes from the immediacy and reach that are Twitter’s trademark, combining the breadth of a massive social network with the unfiltered specificity of users’ contributions.

#WhyIStayed isn’t free from unwanted intrusion by frozen pizza companies or even random users who’ve just failed to get the point. For the most part, though, the hashtags demonstrate that Twitter has a remarkable power to host spontaneous communities and act as a resource for those inside and outside them. #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft allow survivors’ stories to reach, and therefore educate, many who’ve never experienced an abusive relationship themselves. That connection between survivors and strangers is unprecedented, as is the empathy it makes possible. Both have become a part of the tags themselves:

https://twitter.com/awes_joel/status/509374602821517312

It’s what’s on display above that promises to become the lasting impact of #WhyIStayed in particular, and what’s often derided as “hashtag activism” in general. For every divisive #CancelColbert, there’s the opportunity to translate cold — if horrifying — statistics into faces and names, and to transform tabloid sensationalism into a desperately needed conversation.