Protest has become little more than a lifestyle choice

Only days after thousands of Australian’s gathered in solidarity with their female comrades in the US to protest the inauguration of Trump, throngs of people have returned to key city centers throughout the Australia to protest the celebration of nationhood on the anniversary of colonial conquest. 

While the rest of the nation fire’s up the bbq in their backyards, local parks, or at the beach, in honour of Australia Day, protesters stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their Indigenous country men and women, to remember the 26th of January as a day of invasion, as a day of loss, and a day of mourning. While this particular protest has become a decades old tradition, this year it comes after a string of protests that have led me to understand protest as a lifestyle choice more so than a meaningful strategy for political change.

Behold, the irony of one country protesting the democratic election of another country's leader

There are three key factors that lead me to this conclusion (in addition to my discovery of the poster above). The first is the fact that the desired effect of protest - to interfere with the daily routine of society, so as to force people to pay attention to pressing issues of collective importance, and thereby instigate change - is null and void. Protest has become so regular, so ubiquitous, that it is just another part of the daily routine of city life.

The second factor is the conduct of protesters. When people head off to the latest march there is no sense of urgency or despair or imminent threat to well-being. It is another event to mark on one's Facebook profile, an opportunity for a latte (or a cheeky wine), to catch up with friends, a chance to let the world know what one stands for, and thus, who one is as a person. It is a display of solidarity with like-minded people who share a sense of identity and of common values. (That the issues are secondary became stunningly apparent to me while watching Steven Crowder interview women at the Washington Women's March a few days ago, where not one person interviewed could clearly articulate a specific policy or action that they were protesting). Much like moving through throngs of like-minded music lovers at a rock concert, attending a protest can be a sublime experience, one that makes you feel in sync and deeply connected with the community around you. 

I would contend that exactly the same can be said for the average family gathering for a bbq in the backyard to make the most of the Australia Day public holiday, and who may or may not do so with a modicum of national pride.

The third and final factor is how the protester utilizes the tools of capitalism to construct and display their sense of identity. For instance, the reliance on trains, trams, buses and cars that get them to the protest in a timely fashion - the greater the reliance on public transport, the greater display of moral conviction. A hi-tech camera or the latest iPhone is, of course, the most indispensable of tools which enables each person to capture a wondrous shot of the throngs of protestors from the best angle, and allows you to locate your besties within teeming crowds. And it would be remiss not to mention the multitude of social platforms that enable each individual to broadcast their own perspective of the event to the most people possible. 

Now if I have learnt anything from my years as a cultural studies student and teacher, it is that because such practices are inescapably performed within the context of consumer capitalism, these otherwise meaningful practices have become emptied of their intrinsic value. Meaningful connection is thereby displaced by processes of “conspicuous consumption”, defined as an act of consumerism designed to display our tastes and our identity to those around us. Protest like any other good or service, entails purchases and behaviours that signal virtue and value to one's community. The virtue and value that we signify can only ever be a chimera within a capitalist system; virtue and value is leeched away such that acts of protest no longer communicate anything of substance.

Now I love capitalism, so I do not critique the practice of protest to denigrate it. If that’s what makes you feel good, do what you please, just don’t hurt anyone in the process. Rather, I point it out to draw attention to the hypocrisy of protesters who would judge others for celebrating and not protesting Australia Day, or whatever the latest political strawman is.

We all make choices that satisfy our own needs and desires, and often, as with the protesters, these choices are mutually beneficial insofar as they also accommodate the needs of others. Again, the host of the Australia Day BBQ is attending to the needs and desires of loved ones. They are not any less moral or ethical than someone waving a sign in the Melbourne CBD, nor are they any more selfish. They merely have a different set of priorities to attend to before they head back to work tomorrow. And this also applies to the "dickheads" whom many attack because they simply choose to fly the flag (an important caveat is that there are a lot of dickheads flying flags, but again, I don't really care if they aren't being violent).

It does well to remember that a self-righteous attitude towards those who are different, who have different values, priorities and concerns, will do little to achieve the reconciliation and healing that many claim to desire.


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