It is a common lament that the internet is devouring our civic institutions whole, with the apathetic inhabitants of wealthy nations have largely deserted the real world, instead immersing ourselves in isolated online domains to pass our time fruitlessly liking, clicking and sharing. These grim verdicts have spawned their own subgenre of despairing op-eds: we (particularly the young) are apparently a people addicted to Facebook, stewing in our own narcissism and moral vanity, and capable of no more than a self-referential clicktivism.
As usual, this conclusion contains some grains of truth amidst the hyperbole. Clicktivism is indeed problematic. Some research indicates that awareness-raising campaigns can be directly counter-productive, and it has been persuasively argued that the online model of activism ‘uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing’ and that the consequential exchange of the ‘substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests’ damages political movements. Clicktivism, then, can be read as the result of people acting as consumers, rather than citizens.
Nonetheless, many of the articles decrying what is seen as self-indulgent quasi-activism lack an exploration of the broader context from which such gestures emerge. Consider Helen Razer’s article in last week’s Crikey, in which she critiqued a call from Destroy the Joint to send unused tampons to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to protest the treatment of asylum seekers following the allegation that women and girls in detention must queue for what are euphemistically known as ‘feminine hygiene products’.
It is certainly worth observing that the protest does not centre on the dreadful fact of indefinite detention itself but simply about access to necessities within detention centres. One might also wonder why Amnesty International’s revelation that asylum seekers on Manus Island have severely limited amounts of drinking water did not spark a campaign to inundate the Department of Immigration and Border Protection with empty water bottles.
For her part, Razer argued that the tampon protest was ‘so extraordinarily intimate that it cannot signal beyond the range of its own embrace … its effectiveness is doomed to the personal, emotional feminine sphere whose language it uses’. She concluded, therefore, that its major achievement would be making those involved ‘feel good’.
There is much to unpack here about the division of private and public spheres and the effectiveness or otherwise of ‘emotional’ activism (how many protests are purely legal, economic or otherwise technocratic?), but these are not my focus.
Instead, let’s explore the backdrop to this scene of women mailing tampons to a minister and think about what ‘feeling good’ might mean.
Our society is becoming increasingly atomised; work-life balance is for many no more than a slogan; and depression and anxiety are prevalent. The domestic political sphere, usually distant from our everyday lives, is short on inspiration and ripe with banality. For the Left, each day brings fresh cause for dismay – the towing of asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters as well as Tony Abbott’s comparison of ‘border protection’ to a war and his suggestion that concerned inquiries about these matters spring merely from ‘idle curiosity’; the spectacle of a self-proclaimed ‘indigenous affairs Prime Minister’ cutting funds from the Aboriginal Legal Service; and the predictable re-launch of a mean-spirited attack on attempts to teach history as more than a banal recitation of national triumphs.
Attempts to build the good society meet with many obstacles, including rigid party systems, a parliament generally dominated by the executive, the influence of powerful lobbyists, a highly concentrated media landscape, and a seeming consensus between the two major parties on many issues of importance. In addition to systemic and structural problems, influencing our political masters is also difficult – as I’ve noted elsewhere, you can’t shame the shameless.
Well might we feel powerless faced with this impasse. There are excellent avenues to donate time and money to help mitigate the problems facing asylum seekers but shifting policy is a much more difficult proposition, particularly given that the major parties appear determined to outdo each other in unnecessary cruelty under the banner of ‘border protection’. There is a powerful feeling that something must be done, and few answers suggest themselves.
There might, in short, be a great deal more going on in the tampon protest and other such actions than a simple desire to feel good: what is taken for narcissism or exhibitionism may in truth reflect despair. Further, viewing the tampon missives against this broader context, we might observe that this is a protest rather different in character from the archetypes of ‘hashtag activism’. This is not a twibbon or a Fuck Abbott t-shirt. Instead, whatever one may think of the wisdom of the endeavour, it is an attempt to communicate directly with someone who wields actual power. The action is individual, yet is taken in concert with others: a kind of fragile collectiveness.
There is arguably among many Australians a strong wish to help improve our country and in so doing to be part of something bigger than the self. The question is how this desire can be harnessed, how we can work together to craft a politics rooted in solidarity and care. I certainly don’t pretend to any solutions, but I’d be interested in yours.