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Taking to the streets in cyberspace

30 August, 2006
By Mark Bahnisch

In the beginning was the '60s. Or so we're told - the culture wars can be traced back to the second wave of feminism, the pill, traditions fractured, authority called into question. There's a lot of symbolic weight for a decade to bear, and its images are burned into our collective imagination.

At the Museum of Brisbane, they jump off the walls - photos of long-haired protesters in bellbottoms confronting Special Branch detectives in brown suits and unruly sideburns; posters, badges, banners, summonses. The Taking to the Streets exhibition (on display until September 24, 2006) revives memories of the causes and experience that symbolise a generation.

The current myths of generationalism assert that young people today - Gen Y and Gen X - choose to disengage from politics. Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, columnists for The Australian seize upon a few straws in the wind to claim that Gen Y are "young fogies". Anecdotes are tossed around about grey hair at Palm Sunday rallies. But as Sydney University political scientist Ariadne Vroman has argued, based on empirical social research, young people today are no different from the community at large in being disengaged from a professionalised and alienating political process. And the vast majority do choose to be involved in various forms of cultural and civic engagement.

There is no doubt that one phenomenon which affects those who grew up in the '80s and '90s is the post-traditional nature of identity. As sociologists such as Anthony Giddens argue, the defining nature of our world is choice, and this applies to identities as much as commodities. If you are born a Baptist, you can choose to become a Buddhist. If your parents are conservative Christians, you can still be bisexual. Negotiating identity choices remains difficult, but there is a link between a society where consumption and choice are lionised and lauded, and a politics of personal identity.

My research and anecdotal evidence from teaching at Griffith University bolsters the argument that Gen Y students are adept at making links between the local and the global. And they want to see change in the world. This is not easily reduced to a partisan affiliation, and is not easily captured in a poster to be hung on a museum wall in 30 years' time.

Much political activism now takes place on the Internet. The oft-decried individualism and consumption-orientated stereotypes of Gen Y are reflected politically through the use of new media. If social change is now reduced to shifts in social identity rather than joining a closed political process and putting the firewall up, then the negotiation of values through LiveJournal, MySpace and blogs is a new politics of the personal. This is played out across a much broader scope and in a much more collective way than the politics of an ALP branch meeting in a school hall on a cold night.

Phenomena such as Moveon.org, Getup.org.au, IndyMedia and blogs are increasingly mobilising political involvement. Importantly, such media provide an opportunity for youth themselves to talk back to power, and to challenge many of the tired myths which sustain the closed and self-referential world of politics and its media acolytes.

New attitudes to the global, new forms of sexual identity, and even identifications organised around fashion or music are different to the protest songs that united past generations, but if people think that a new politics of the social is not being articulated in these spaces, then they simply don't know where to look. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues, many of us are "shopping for a self". But what he may have overlooked is that we’re doing this in a wired, interactive and increasingly global way. And that, too, will change the world.

If you require a monument to the symbolism of the '60s, go to the Museum of Brisbane and have a look around the Taking to the Streets exhibition. But if you think that the impulses the '60s created towards the politicisation of the personal and participation in reframing life choices are dead, log on to the Internet.

Much of the thrust of the culture wars and the narrowing of politics to its bare instrumental bones - which has stepped in tandem with the professionalisation of politics over the last few decades - has been an attempt to put these impulses back into easily labelled and stored boxes. Much of the generationalist discourse is about designing those boxes, complete with "up-to-date" bells and whistles, and selling them. But politics is a way of creating genuinely new things in the world. That has not stopped - and it won’t stop. It is just finding new modes of expression and engagement. Many of these involve choices about identities, individual and collective.

The challenge for the media, and for politicians, is to catch up and wake up to a social and political revolution that is well underway in cyberspace, if not yet on the streets.

Previously published in A longer version of this article, "Being politcal now", appears in the August 2006 edition of the Griffith Review 13: The Next Big Thing.

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