‘Perhaps we could have won WWII,’ a friend of mine mused, ‘by having Winston Churchill tweet photos of himself holding a sheet of paper saying ‘Mr Hitler, get out of Poland’.’ 2014, for all its awful events, will be known as the year we regressed to the hieroglyph. Activists, if they’re even deserving of the name, have taken the radical ‘60s slogan that the personal is political too literally. The means are anodyne, the ends nebulous: the anger of the enfranchised is encapsulated by way of a portrait of oneself.
The earnest rot was confirmed in April, when hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria by Islamic fundamentalists Boko Haram. #BringBackOurGirls became the cause du jour, popularised by Michelle Obama’s photo of herself holding a sign, rather than using her proximity to the President to argue for boots on the ground or drone strikes. The popularity of the cause has died, and the kidnappings of young girls by Boko Haram have continued. Boko Haram are not big fans of literacy.
In the age of the internet, censorship is crowd-sourced, so the safe is celebrated. Rhetoric has become prized over action. In response to the recent burqa ban debate, the #WISH movement began – Women in Solidarity with Hijabs – where Australian women and minor public figures took nice photographs of themselves draped in cloth to show that they are nice people. It’s a shame there was no such solidarity shown for Ruqiya Farah Yarow, who was killed by militants in Somalia in July for not wearing a hijab.
George Megalogenis has noted that politics always flirts with the worst aspects of marketing, and the Australian political class has moved quickly to adopt the latest bad idea. Earlier this month, Bill Shorten posed with a sign stating ‘Racism. Hatred. Bigotry. Not in my name.’ If public relations must be a tertiary degree, then surely PR 101 would advise political leaders not to pose with a simple white sign that can be easily photo-shopped into memes such as ‘budget surplus: not in my name’.
And it has infected all sides. Liberal backbencher Fiona Scott this week posed with a sign saying: ‘I’m a parliamentarian against family violence’, presumably to strike fear into the hearts of all of the parliamentarians who are for family violence. We live in an age of such sweeping risk aversion that our leaders are content to make statements that no reasonable person could possibly disagree with, yet cannot produce the policies to match.
Maybe it’s the saturation of words and ideas that have sent people to the image as the tool of communication. The old adage is a false unit of measurement: few words are painted because such little meaning is conveyed. Protesting has become the most narcissistic of pursuits, benefiting only the individual protester’s perception of themself.
Many are quick to condemn us – and particularly my millennial generation – as living in an age of narcissism. We’re told we are indulgent, valueless, and vein, but this is a time-honoured intergenerational sledge. That the narcissism of modern protest afflicts all generations speaks to a much larger issue: the Left, the custodians of protest and change, no longer know what they are fighting for.
Since Neoliberalism became the economic orthodoxy, the Left has lost its constituency and its intellectual muscle. It has been unable to produce any alternative to the system since the biggest crisis in late capitalism, the GFC. The modern Left’s greatest thinker, Slavoj Žižek, says his role is not to provide an answer. Occupy, the subversive protest movement that emerged from the GFC, has been unable to provide any coherence. Indeed Žižek warned the Occupy Movement in 2012 of ‘the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the nice time they are having in the ‘occupied’ places.’ Many of the founders of Occupy have become celebrity activists in their own right. Last month, it emerged that some are now suing each other. After achieving nothing, they have retreated to traditional institutions to seek financial compensation.
Nostalgia for intellectual traditions that mobilised mass worldwide protests in 1848 and 1968 ensures that protest is still seen as the logical route to success, yet the response to the Left’s current ideological ennui has been to retreat to the personal. Capitalism’s elevation of so many to a broad middle class means that sticking it to the system equates to risking nothing and working inside it. Celebrating the fact that one has an opinion is not discourse: a few minutes in any public bar will show you that opinionated people aren’t a rarity.
But this is not to say all forms of protest can be dismissed: it’s worthwhile contrasting the sign-holding selfies with the recent mass protests in Hong Kong, where the stakes are as high as they come. Here, they’re fighting for something very real: from effective democracy to authoritarianism, from liberty to censorship, from capitalism to corruption. We’ve seen compelling images of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, of mass umbrellas raised to shield themselves from teargas and identification. It’s the exact opposite of hieroglyphic protest – significant personal risk may well have a higher correlation to effecting change.
The usual suspects will be out in force at the G20 in Brisbane later this month, decrying the alienating effects of capitalism and globalisation by a coming together organised from their iPhones. Nike shoes will be used to kick through McDonalds windows ‘because America…’, while the ladies of the hijab selfie movement will stay quiet about Chinese persecution of Uyghurs in Xinxiang and Russian persecution of Chechens. Cowardice is a bedfellow of narcissism, and the protesting class is too fearful of offence to criticise anything other than western culture.
Solidarity cannot exist in an ideological vacuum. In a poignant critique of the New Left in Australia in 2012, writer Adam Brereton asked: ‘once activists for the current trendy causes win their gay marriages, increases to aid budgets and the like, will they bother to stick around without a deeper economic or structural politics? When our generation’s Patrick Stevedores arrives, how many members of GetUp! will be willing to go to gaol?’ Left wing activists have created a hyper-reality where doing nothing is thought to achieve something. Their causes will continue to wilt: but hey, at least we will know who cared about them.
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