Sunday, February 23, 2014

Activism, Social Media and the Zeitgeist Illusion

The dominant paradigm with any tribal grouping, including social media – is that we tend to congregate with “like-mindeds”.  Facebook and Twitter are our new tribes.

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 My Facebook pages are chock full of leftist, social justice-laden content which I dutifully “like”, “comment” and “share” on in the knowledge that my “friends” will also “like”, “comment” and “share” them too.  I can tell by the number of times a story – outrage on Asylum Seeker policy for instance – comes around on my newsfeed, that this is absolutely the case.

This “self-indoctrination” informs me and my like-minded friends, that the horror we might have towards asylum seeker policy or the continuing inequality of women in society or the appalling plight of fruit cannery and car manufacturing workers in Australia represents the groundswell of popular opinion in this country.  We collectively believe that the era of the neo-cons up the hill in Canberra will be mercifully short lived and the progressives will sweep back to power in 2016.  But, maybe it doesn’t.

Could it be that  Australians actually agree with Morrison’s asylum seeker policy?  Or maybe we just don’t want to contemplate the untold horrors and deprivations our fellow humans are escaping.  Maybe the prevailing mood is that workers do have outrageous employment conditions that give them just about enough to buy a house and a car and have a lifestyle that you might expect for a developed economy.  Maybe a return to work choices is justified in order to save the ‘tanking’ economy that the Treasurer constantly reminds us in such bad shape.  Maybe Australia fundamentally doesn’t believe that we can afford Medicare or that a disability insurance scheme benefitting all Australian families coping with a family member requiring 24/7 care and a school funding model that benefits all students regardless of where they attend school are bridges too far given our “parlous fiscal condition”. 

For me, it beggars belief that this might actually be true.  Australians pride themselves on the clichés of egalitarianism (a fair go for all); on mateship.  Indeed, in many respects the average Aussie farmer (for example) is the quintessential agrarian socialist and there is still a preponderance of collectivist ideology in many of Australia’s rural communities – common ownership of equipment, growers collectives etc.

But our political history is littered with evidence of deeply entrenched bigotry and conservatism: from the original declaration of terra nullius to the rejection of non-white immigrants from the 1930s. 

Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce opined in 1925 that he “wanted Australians to remain essentially and basically a British (and white) people" and, in general, the “Australian community supported this ideal and favoured policies which prevented alien immigrants from competing for (white) 'Australian' jobs”.  Up until 1939, there was official support across the political spectrum for a policy espousing that 97% of immigrants should be of Anglo-Saxon origin and that all migrants from Europe were to be considered "alien"

The White Australia Policy, which informed Australia’s policy on immigration from federation until the latter part of the 20th Century took many years (25) to dismantle.  The essence of that policy remains in the psyche of many Australians.

Indigenous Australians were only allowed to vote as recently as 1967 and we are still debating the inclusion of Indigenous Australians in our Constitution and the recent “closing the gap” report shows huge room for improvement.

Universal women’s suffrage was adopted Australia-wide by 1911 but inherent sexism and objectification of women in Australia continues.  Gender stereotyping in advertising, “traditional” gender roles in television dramas, residual pay inequality and a raft of other discriminations show Australian society is as sexist as it ever was.

So maybe the Australian zeitgeist is conservative, self-interested, racist, sexist and bigoted.  But how would I know?  All my “friends” would rather “un-friend” their entire friends list on Facebook and pretend that a society reflecting these ideals in their newsfeeds just couldn’t exist.  We would rather abandon our Social Media tribe.

If this is the ugly truth, how did we get here?  Why are we like this?  And, at least for those of us who find the possibility that we are like this totally abhorrent, what can we do about it?

From a grassroots perspective, quite a lot: 

Billy Bragg said it quite well in Waiting for the Great Leap Forward: “You can be active with the activists or sleep in with the sleepers while you're waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”.  Embrace activism then: in your community, in your local paper, at your local show, at the pub, in your workplace.  Join your union, or a political party, have a voice.  “The revolution is just a t-shirt away.”

The social media zeitgeist is still helpful.  Support for and vindication of a set of values and ideals by the tribe is healthy for any societal group.  Social Media, by any definition, is a ‘society’.  Belonging, then, is everything and, if belonging creates security and security motivates action then I’m all for it.  So bring me my iPad and Facebook newsfeed!  Don’t forgo social media: your friends will support you and, who knows, through the organic nature of this medium, you never know who you might reach and influence.  The zeitgeist might be an illusion but at least you have a voice!

The tribe has spoken.  Don’t forget to: “Like”, “Comment” and “Share”

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