Of despair, tampons and clicktivism

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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  1. Purity versus danger? Sending used tampons would be better: realising the message rather than the mediation.

    • I presume you will feel suitably engaged when the Minister sends you some of his used toilet paper by return of post.

  2. Thanks for this article, which I found via Twitter, funnily enough. I run this page among others
    My feeling is that social media is a necessity for activists, but it’s no substitute for more direct and meaningful engagement. I often first hear about rallies via Facebook invites and the like.

    Organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre show practical leadership and draw thousands of volunteers, which is a brilliant way of leading by example.

    The LNP and Labor consensus on detaining and mistreating asylum seekers is one of the biggest obstacles, I’d say, but we have the benefit of a reasonably pro-active media, and those on the pro-refugee side are much more likely to get out onto the streets or do things like organise Christmas gifts for kids in detention.

    Having attended the Canberra Convergence on November 8 last year, I have to say I was disappointed by the turn out and the media’s almost complete lack of interest. Tonight the reports are appearing of the Navy firing warning shots to return unseaworthy boats, so if increasing cruelty doesn’t make people feel the need to become more active, I don’t know what will. Sharing info quickly via social networks and doing the hard work of building and demonstrating that positive differences can be made, through detention centre visits, publicising abuses and so on, makes sense to me. @les_thomas

  3. I’d like a serious answer from those who criticise ‘clicktivism’, online activism and the like. Helen Razon is a loud one who regularly denounces those who attempt political protest online but when you ask her how things “should” be done she always replies with useless, out-dated ideas like “join a union” or “attend a rally”.

    I attended a rally last year protesting cuts to education assistants in the WA public school system. The atmosphere was electric and there was a lot of media coverage. It was also completely ignored by the Barnett government who have continued with their cuts to education. The State Teachers Union has been campaigning for months with the full support of its members, shadow ministers, and members of minority parties such as The Greens. They have also been completely ignored by the Barnett government.

    Even when public rallies and advocacy by unions and interest groups generates media coverage, existing governments have demonstrated their exception ability to ignore it. Even international criticism from the likes of Amnesty about the treatment of asylum seekers seems to have zero impact on the thoughts (let alone actions) of the current governments. Short of economic sanctions imposed by other countries – I don’t know what our government would respond to or what it would take to get them to change their policy.

    One of the benefits of online activism is the conversation it generates amount peers. Twitter is often accused of being an echo chamber where people only hear opinions they already agree with. The rally I attended last year was literally inside an echo chamber, except this time I didn’t have some of my friends standing next to me, reading my feed and thinking, “hrrrrmm. I wonder what’s going on here?”. Nor did my engagement generate any conversation with them about the issue – unlike the online campaign that was shared and discussed by many people in my social networks.

    When the only thing politicians listen to are voting polls, and the only thing they care about are election results, then the only effective action we are left with is changing how people vote. Contrary to popular opinion this does not happen in the month before an election when the major parties flood us with platitudes and empty promises – it is a slow process that occurs by engaging people in discussion and making politics personal for them. Rallies don’t do this. Unions don’t do this. Mainstream media very rarely does this. Online activism can do this – it allows for targeted and personal appeals to a person’s friends. It puts the issue in a personal context and brings it into the immediate experience of the individual. Mailing tampons to a minister may seem futile – until you talk to your sister about why you’re doing it. And then she talks to her friend and at the next election they refuse to vote for “that horrible man that wouldn’t let women have a tampon!”

    The only other option is see is some form of legal action directly against the ministers and government – but I don’t even know if that’s possible. We can’t sue parties for false advertising – and while corporations might soon be able to sue for damages because of policy, how is an individual supposed to do this? Can we form a collective and sue the government for mismanagement and gross pain and hardship? What about suing the members of electorate who voted in these ministers?

  4. Thanks for this interesting article, first off.

    I’ve had a few interesting discussions with friends who despise online activism, but like a lot of mediums, I think it’s something that can be used and misused (and thus have positive and negative effects). Politically speaking, I think it has, is and (so long as it exists) will continue to play a huge role in how change is effected.

    Sure, there probably are groups who’s forums work as “echo chambers” or something similar; but there are also an infinite number of opinions being refined every day (not always for the better, unfortunately). The efficiency with which like-minded groups can organise action, as mentioned in the previous reply, is clearly bolstered by this medium. And peoples’ capacities to change themselves and their actions based on progressive and critical thought is not only increased dramatically, but in essence changes the world in itself (not so much in a directly political sense, but through the changes they make in their everyday lives pertaining to general harmony).

    To address the symbolic act of sending tampons to the Immigration Minister: to set out to deem its significance confined to “the emotional feminine sphere”, resulting only in those behind it “feeling good” – well, maybe emotional femininity is something our patriarchal, male-dominated society could learn from regarding so many issues, including this one. If we applied this attitude to some of the great symbolic acts of history, it would fail, because people are affected and touched by these things; and most importantly, made AWARE of something. And awareness is the beginning of (and arguably constitutes) change. Even if seen very simply as spreading information (I wouldn’t have known about the tampon issue if it hadn’t occurred, though it could be argued that’s my lack of interaction with media…).

    I’d just like to address one of Monica’s comments in the last reply, also. Regarding the “only thing left” being HOW we vote. It could be seen as a little cynical, but even if election results were more than just the result of what the majority of the population un-critically saw of shifty election campaigns over a short period of time before voting – that is, if the average Australian actually went to the effort to really delve into and scrutinise the information being fed them and even this information they have access to on the web – even if this were the case, how far can this country progress with it’s limited options and close-minded leadership groups? A complete change in voting ideology aside, I still feel that imminent, self-demonstrative change is the most important, most accessible and most relevant (which can indirectly involve wider political change, for example through boycotting certain products to send immoral industries to the graveyard). And this is something I feel social-network sites to be able to assist almost indefinitely (set backs and negative aspects notwithstanding).

  5. Good piece.

    I agree that there is a real sense of despair, or at least, I certainly feel it. Despite being constantly informed (reprimanded?) that we get the government we deserve, I’m still not convinced. I think it’s easy to feel as if there are so many issues and causes which need our attention–in fact, I think we’re bombarded with them–and ‘clicktivism’ is one way we feel we might be able to affect a small amount of change.

  6. Sarah Burnside writes: “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.”

    Few answers suggest themselves because the only alternative to ‘border protection’ and controlled immigration is what the Greens want, namely open borders. Problem (apparently) solved; only for more problems to be created. These include finding where we draw the line, or do we open the borders to all 22 million or so asylum seekers on the UNHCR’s books, with at least that number again prepared to either get on the queue or attempt to jump it, once the message goes back down the line that going to Australia on an Indonesian fishing boat is worth the money?

  7. Bit of a depressing article.

    Any political action not directly connected to a material result is vulnerable to these criticisms: whether it’s online discussion, speech-making, letter-writing, petition-signing, or marching at a protest.

    “Mere communication” has got to be nine tenths of proper democracy. But political views, no matter how fervently prosecuted, can be safely skirted by the flawed process we do have, unless they happen to fall, or are made to fall, along one or two demographic boundaries betwixt the juggernauts of our politics. At which point the subject becomes the wedge.

    With such immense barriers to the disposition of the forces of the public sphere for the regulation of government, it’s no surprise that political speech feels wasted and ephemeral as a rule.

    Federally, every three years (too long) we get essentially one decision (too few) to deliberate on all policy areas. We need more frequent votes on narrower topics to restore substance to our franchise.

    System reform is a relatively little-discussed topic. The strategies that exploit the flaws in our electoral process are being refined much faster than that system’s capacity to resist them. New Chartist movement perhaps?

  8. Thanks everyone for the feedback. Sorry, I guess there was no way this article could have been other than depressing really – it was written from a place of despair itself. Agree that system reform is under-discussed, possibly because it seems so hard right now to imagine any viable alternative to the status quo.

    • It’s true, yeah.

      Just to indulge a bit of technocratic sketchiness: if I were able to make a relatively uncontroversial change, I’d beef up the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Charter of Budget Honesty Act, and legislate requiring the publication of both costings and costings performance data in a digestible open format year on year.

      I’d also apply more stringent criteria regarding the process of costing policy, publishing policy detail and costings, and bringing them to polls. Make a few more things measurable.

      Independent costings could be assured by instituting multiple costings agencies that supplied estimates separately and were re-funded based on agreed performance metrics. Think Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P but for policy: not perfect but better than nothing.

  9. I would not dismiss ‘clicktivism’ too readily. The Net may have rendered a lot of street events passe, but those were only ever about bringing issues to peoples’ attention (‘consciousness raising’) which ‘clicktivism’ does much more rapidly and arguably just as well.

    Also, it has brought the costs down enormously. In the 1960s protests over Vietnam, a large part of ‘activism’ was organising the printing and distribution of leaflets etc. Mass emailing (eg by GetUp, change.org) can now be done with a click or two. If the same thing was attempted through the (dying) snailmail, it would be very time consuming and expensive. And if we went for street demonstrations, there would be at least one per day, and with a minuscule rollup to each one.

    To sum up, the Internet is a huge asset for those who have something to say. And if Twitter and Facebook are too vacuous, start a blog of your own. ‘Burnside’s Blaze’: there the title already.

  10. Hi O.Puhleez – I didn’t intend to dismiss the value of the internet per se and it has obviously made a lot of organising much easier. There seems to me to be a difference though between activism that uses the net as a tool and activism that revolves entirely around online spaces eg consciousness raising for the sole sake of consciousness raising.

    Tom, I like those ideas. Not perfect but better than nothing is a good place to start I reckon – I am a fan of not making the perfect the enemy of the good etc (forgive the cliche)

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