A sad farewell to protests

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Back in the late nineties, when raving meant dancing and sun-dried tomatoes meant culinary sophistication, I joined a group at university called ‘The Activist Left’. It was the obvious choice for someone who had spent their high school years weeping over woodchips. I believed another world was possible but had no faith in parliamentary reform. Revolutionary overthrow sounded infinitely more exciting than slow and gradual change in due course. So I sailed past the Labor Party at O-Week and headed for the kids with piercings, radical politics and whose verdant forests of body hair should have constituted a zoning issue. I exchanged friends for comrades, tampons for moon-cups, deodorant for patchouli oil and dinner for beer. They were happy, smelly, tofu-filled days.

In the years that followed I participated in protests around Jabiluka mine, sexist advertising, refugees and cuts to university funding.  Some of these protests, like Jabiluka mine, were successful. Others, like accidentally spray-painting ‘sexist crab’ on a billboard were just confusing. But victorious or not the very experience of protest was transformative, empowering and divinely pleasurable.

Protest is crucial to democracy. It takes us out of our soft and selfish refuges as we stand up for other people, places and ideas. Protest translates individual human empathy into wider social change. Public spaces in the CBD devoted to the rabid pursuit of self-interest are transformed into carnivalesque sites of collective revolt. Even if laws don’t always change through protest, participants certainly do.

Which is why I cannot help but bewail their extinction. Where have all the protests gone? When was the last time you saw the CBD cordoned off because 5000 students were complaining about the treatment of refugees? Why did Reclaim the Streets suddenly die? Why was Occupy Sydney mostly populated by Gen-Xers? At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly grannie muttering darkly over the state of the youth these days, I have to ask: what’s wrong with the youth these days? Why are they so nauseatingly conservative?

This is not just anecdotal.  A recent Mission Australia study found that the economy had overtaken the environment as the issue that most concerned young Australia. Support for the Greens among young voters has decreased from 22% to 16% in the past two years and Tony Abbott still leads Labor on youth first-preferences since the last election by five points. Even worse, they’re stinking rich! According to a 2012 Bankwest Financial Fitness Index Gen Y are ‘more conservative with their money than any generation before’. Gen-Xers (between 33-45) I’m proud to say are financial train-wrecks.

I’ll grant that studies have shown young people to be socially progressive on issues like gay and lesbian rights and the war in Afghanistan.  But their support rarely extends beyond online petitions, indignant memes or heartfelt status updates. It’s also true that Jonathan Moylan’s coal hoax and the marches for Jill Maher were great protests. They were, nonetheless, exceptions to the rule.

I’m abundantly aware of older generations berating the youth for their lack of radicalism. I read Helen Garner’s vile lectures to younger feminists and was a recipient of Ann Summers’ execrable letter to the next generation. Baby boomers grossly overstate their own counter-cultural spirit, particularly given their voracious appetite for real estate. While I was personally active, I make no claims on behalf of Gen-X to revolutionary fervour.  My concern is simply that baby Gen-Y appear to be doing absolutely nothing at all except taking duck-faced photos of themselves on instagram.

Some commentators have blamed social media for the profound indolence of youth. Mark Bauerlain puts it beautifully: ‘the fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.’ Criticisms about google making us dumber intersect with generational critique. The internet, it’s argued, has created a frantic world of distraction where deep thought and empathy (fostered through reading books) is impossible. The E-generation are skaters upon the surface of life.

Personally, I think that this is hogswash. Aristotle argued that books prevented us from reflecting on our souls, T.S.Eliot thought that typewriters would thwart literary eloquence and everyone in the 18th Century thought that novel-reading would cause chronic masturbation.

The problem does not lie with technology. A quick glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Spain’s Los Indignados and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and facebooking their way to radical street protest.

Sadly, it seems like Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They’re more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.

Brittany Huppert, a twenty-year-old SMH intern, attributes her generation’s apathy to the fact that they were born into economic prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for except home-ownership, which she notes will be hard without mum or dad’s help. This is all probably true, but I can’t help but wonder why on earth a twenty year old is worried about home-ownership. Travel Brittany! The world is more interesting than a mortgage! Worry instead about how indigenous people can win land rights! And honestly, if you think you have nothing to fight for then maybe you should read up on the wage gap between women and men, rates of sexual violence, the intervention, global poverty, James Price Point and the list goes on.

To be honest, I’m not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just the spawn of John Howard? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?

All I know for certain is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.

Follow Alecia Simmonds on Twitter.

17 comments

  • Yet another article selling youth short. AYCC, Occupy Melbourne, there are more examples of groups of talented youth activists. I know numbers of young people who have travelled and also volunteered in challenging environments. The difference between them and earlier protest generations is that they don't confine themselves to noisy gatherings in the street but are busy petitioning governments and businesses, writing submissions, organising fundraising, volunteering with disadvantaged groups and living as collaborative groups -sharing ideas and resources. Stop the youth bashing, please and make way. We have a smarter, more aware, more inclusive generation coming through.

    Commenter
    Sqawkin
    Location
    Ararat
    Date and time
    January 18, 2013, 7:28AM
    • Very well said. Young people are not meant to be this conservative but when it's been drilled into you by your parents from day one that you need to work hard, get a good job, save money and buy a house, then it's no wonder that their main priority is their back pocket. They are simply products of their parents ideals.

      Commenter
      sam
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      January 18, 2013, 8:53AM
      • Yes - because here in the real world you need to do those things (word hard, get a good job etc) in order to afford to live in this country. Unless your goal is to live off welfare.

        Commenter
        SK_
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        January 18, 2013, 9:07AM
    • I wouldn't confuse apathy with ennui. Maybe they don't protest because protesting is about sudden change, and sudden change is never lasting. Spirit is useless if it all it does is make you tilt at windmills.

      The youth of today can do a quick internet search of the past 50 years and see all those thousands of fervent protests about civil rights, women's rights, capitalism and warmongering. Such optimism about how the people involved were going to 'change the world in a blaze of glory'.

      It's easy to look around and see that the world really hasn't changed in any fundamental way because of protests. Did the massive Iraq war protests stop the invasion? Nope. Did the 'Occupy' movement overthrow the capitalist corporations that run the world? Nope. Was 'the bomb' banned? Nope. Has racism been eliminated in western nations? Nope. Are Israel and the Arab world still mired in a never-ending conflict? Yep. Has sexism been eliminated after decades of constant effort? Nope. Do we still wallow in sensationalism, gossip and trivialities? Yep. Are Egypt and Libya slowly sliding back into repression and sectarian violence? Yep. Is Syria still murdering its own citizens? Yep.

      Change is incremental, it's never a paradigmatic shift. People change things by living differently and teaching their children to live differently, not by getting together in a mob, shouting slogans and waving banners at authority figures who don't care and don't listen. Change is brought about by people, not movements.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 18, 2013, 9:16AM
      • A lecturer at uni once told me that it takes a minumum of 100 years to pass before a society really notices significant change. I thought that was interesting, a bit sad though.

        Alecia - don't sell us out just yet.

        Commenter
        Miffy
        Date and time
        January 18, 2013, 10:56AM
    • Great article that articulates what a lot of people know to be true. As a product of Gen Y, I think a lot of responsibility for this politically apathetic attitude should be placed on the shoulders of the modern university. You write about how your protesting spirit was awoken at university. These days, we are taught more process than content– above all we are taught that the job market in most industries is more competitive than ever and to worship social media in all its inclinations. The university as a business rather than a centre for awakening and education has become less interested in increasing knowledge in young people and this is part of the reason Gen Y are fraught with anxiety and pressure rather than a thirst for justice and passion for left wing ideals.

      Commenter
      tilly13
      Date and time
      January 18, 2013, 9:19AM
      • Boohoo the youth isnt how I want it. Every aging generation says this just because things arent how they were 'back in my day', regardless of whether its not well behaved enough or not enough spirit or etc.

        If you want more protests, go and protest? What a hippocrit.

        Commenter
        barry
        Date and time
        January 18, 2013, 9:25AM
        • There are still politically active Gen Ys out there. They might not be in the streets with banners, but sometimes it is more important and effective to question and challenge the status quo on a daily and more personal basis. Many Boomers did this too and still do.
          I am often shocked at young peoples' lack of challenge to the system in my field of education. Young teachers seldom ask why when new demands are made of them (due to lack of tenure?) and many students just burrow deeper in to their own small world, dismissing the activities of older generations as irrelevant rather than questioning.
          The lack of true ideals and ideologies in politics, alongside the rampant pragmatism and need to remain in power demonstrated by our leaders must contribute to the malaise.

          Commenter
          Amanda
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          January 18, 2013, 9:44AM
          • I really dont understand why people think that online activism is less meaningful or important than walking down the street - it gets the same kind of media attention these days. Youth are not less engaged, they are just doing things differently, and older people need to leran to move with the times as well...

            Commenter
            moph
            Date and time
            January 18, 2013, 9:49AM
            • Speaking realistically here, what do Gen Y in Australia really have to protest about? We don't live under the conditions that resulted in Arab Spring. We don't face a situation like India where they are struggling with victim blaming of women who have been raped. I don't believe in destroying property to get my point across, or screaming in the street. The Reclaim the Night walks failed because at the end of the day, what were we protesting? That women cannot walk certain areas safely at night? A protest doesn't fix this problem. It is a problem caused by a minority of awful people with no respect for other human beings. Perhaps Gen Y don't protest but I have heard stats say this generation is heavily involved in charities - is that not a better form of community involvement which makes more of a long term difference than screaming with a placard? I'd protest, but I'd protest if I really believed in a particular cause. At this point, I want to focus on doing well in my career, earning enough money to buy a home and spending time with family and friends and helping the community where I can. That to me sounds like a life well lived.

              Commenter
              SKA
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              January 18, 2013, 9:50AM

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