Silence Of Friends: Activism in the Modern Era
A couple of months back, a renowned company released a TV commercial and it quickly elicited mixed reactions, the most common one being anger. What was exactly in that advert? Well, accompanied by a feel-good pop tune about 'The Movement', the film showed a protest rally or movement of avant-garde young people, peppered with token minorities. They catch the gaze of a famous fashion model Kendall Jenner (of the notorious and notoriously tacky Kardashian Family).
Beckoned, she sheds her costume and heads to the front of the procession. There, she hands a policeman in the barricade the product; and he drinks it. This is apparently the goal of the 'movement', since everyone starts celebrating.
What is the big deal? Well, many complained that it deliberately copied the look and feel of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The hue and cry is over hiring a white protagonist for a film clearly inspired by a Black movement. It was also seen as trivialising the BLM, having stripped off all the hardship and police mistreatment, to leave audiences with only a happy carnival of sorts. That Kendal Jenner – whose family is thought to shy away from a political stand on racism, while copying fashion and aesthetic trends from the Black community – was chosen to lead the movement, was also an affront to many. The company pulled the film on its first day and issued an apology.
Ironic that activism shut down a film that attempted to celebrate activism.
Social media has opened floodgates of unexamined causes and unstoppable rebels. With the license to post/share anything and zero accountability, young men and women have taken to protests and activism over anything and everything. Today, there is activism for eliminating air travel, stopping standardised spelling and spelling bees, fair portrayal of snakes on movies and covering up the mermaid's body in the Starbucks logo.
We don't have to look far to catch glimpses of such activism in Bangladesh. A renowned telco recently posted a somewhat inappropriate rhyme / meme about an impending cyclone. Naturally, netizens took issue and the post was taken down. Think about the TV chef with the onomatopoeic name: her antics with instant noodles have led thousands to defend a notion of 'proper cuisine' by hurling insults. Recently, another group has emerged that defends the chef's freedom to make sandwiches out of noodles. Neither, however, has pondered the nutritional value of instant noodles and its role in urban school children obesity.
Attention deficits and short shelf-life of news stories means that everyday activists seek out issues with easy moral clarity; issues that demand roughly 60 seconds and zero research to form a position on. Often, the aim is not to further the cause, but to further one's reputation by attaching it to the cause.
I can't resist a couple of anecdotes in this regard. During a rally some years ago, I overheard some young men discussing their choice of 'protest clothes'. One had bought (or borrowed) a bandanna. Another had had his 'Master of Puppets' shirt washed two days in advance. In another incident, passionate and articulate protest planners eventually disbanded because the Guy Fawkes masks - if ordered on Alibaba - would not arrive on time. Needless to say, any act of dissent that requires conforming consumption is but a toothless mimicry.
Globally, citizens are jealously guarding the freedom to engage in activism, but wielding such activism with caution, lest it invokes the ire of the powers that be. In fact, there is little reflection on the ambitions, commitment, tactics and manner of modern day activism. There is little thought given to how low-commitment, photogenic activism by uninformed / half-informed activists actually invites mockery and scorn to the entire analytical category.
Last year, when an (recently-arrested) elderly schoolteacher was forced by a political bigwig to do squats holding his ears - social media users erupted in protest. However, their response to it? Posting photos of themselves holding their ears in solidarity; as if to share the teacher's burden. One camera click, and activism was done. Unexamined remained the confluence of constitutional and community justice systems.
Contemporary activism has been largely commodified. Many urban-centric movements gain momentum – not because activists care about an issue, but because citizens want to partake in the romanticism of political action. I would argue that this is precisely why we hear so many voices against social ills (e.g. child marriage, violence against women), but few if any against political dysfunction (e.g. embedded corruption, bureaucratic nepotism and dynastic rule).
For example, after the sensational rapes that took place in a hotel in Banani, activists critiqued men's reluctance to admit that 'no means no'. But we heard nothing against the law enforcement establishment that refused to register the case; or against the organised racket that stuffs young men full of methamphetamine. Can we not connect the dots from 'protection of political actors in the narcotics trade' to 'violence under the influence'? Do we not realise that social maladies thrive on the failures of political institutions?
It seems that contemporary activists are reluctant to go up against 'the establishment' in fear of retribution. Many appear afraid of being caught up in the false dichotomy of the 'Us or Them' that ruling party affiliates have been peddling. The answer is riskless, but pithy-sounding activism that doesn't attack underlying causes or structures, but only grazes the surface for the activists' benefit. And why blame them? Activists of yore grew up examining society and desiring justice. This generation grew up studying Che and desiring his sideburns. This is how the illusion of activism starts to replace actual activism.
Of course, not all is lost. Look again at the Banani rape case and remember how social media pressure mounted, till all the accused were arrested. More importantly, the overdue conversation on rape and victim-blaming was rejuvenated. I am reminded of an article on the #YesAllWomen movement (USA), "[because of this activism] the realms of gender shifted a little. They shifted not because of the [crime], but because millions came together in a vast conversational network to share experiences, revisit meanings and definitions, and arrive at new understandings."
Another movement generating informed discourse is – (what should've been branded) the pro-Sundarban movement. One of the reasons why it persists may be because a dedicated group of activists are regularly breaking down complex information into bite-size chunks, for wider consumption. And this is vital. Articulation of worthy issues and deconstructing it for wider consumption is a social service essential for grassroots mobilisation; and is starkly absent in our domestic politics.
Apart from elections, activism is the single most important medium of interacting with the state / government. And there are stark examples of intellectual stagnation in political activism. As rulers and regulators find newer ways to erect walls of secrecy, breach citizen privacy and fence in citizen freedoms – citizens must respond by finding smarter ways to thwart government corruption and violations. For that, activists must educate themselves to the point of becoming orators, thought leaders and public intellectuals. For that, they must forget the mask, and reach for the book.
The writer is a strategy and communications consultant.