Sunday, August 13, 2006

Talking about my generation

I started university in 1996 - all ready to go on some protests. The first protest of the year was a protest against fees (university had been free in New Zealand until 1989), and it was tiny 60 people - so small it was embarassing to attempt to march with that few people. The next edition of the student paper had a headline saying 'You are Pathetic'.

18 months later 75 Victoria University students were arrested on the steps of parliament, protesting the privatisation of education - a week after that there was a march of nearly 2,000 people.

I tell this story as a response to the Sunday Star Times article about the lack of activism among 'Generation Y'. I loathe trend stories at the best of times - they're so meaningless - you get half a dozen people and let them tell their life stories and call it a trend. You can always find half a dozen people of any life group and you can make a trend. In Paris 1968 (or over the last twelve months) I'm sure you could have found half a dozen apathetic young people.

I believe there are often structural reasons behind the rise and fall of political movements, but to reduce this down to 'generations' is lazy, innaccurate and banal. But that wasn't what I found most annoying about the article (which was a reasonably good article of its type - and I think did a good job of presenting more complicated explanation, even if it used the ridiculous generation frame).

Throughout the article individual action - such as buying fairtrade coffee - was conflated with collective action - such as going on a protest. I was most shocked when these ideas came not just from the journalists but from people involved in protests - even Joe Carolan - who comes from the socialist workers (it's supposed to be anarchists who are attracted to that particular brand of lame pseudo-protest).

I think individual action is a useless form of protest, because it's only through collectivity that we have any power. But that's not the only problem - not buying clothes made in China, or buying fair trade whatever isn't just uselss - it also frames political action as something you do for other people. I actually ended up agreeing with one of the apathetic people they interviewed when he said - I might get involved if I thought there was something in it for me. If people believe that the only reason you paticipate in poltical protests is personal goodness then we're all screwed.

I've been involved in organising protests for 9 years now - and it's not something I do for other people. That's not just because it's incredibly fucking rewarding - working together with other people to change things is easily the most meaningful thing I have ever done. It has helped me found strength and skill I didn't know I have, an. It's also because I want to live in a better world. The sort of world I want to create would be better for people in New Zealand, as well as people in Africa. But most importantly I think the fate of everyone in this world without power is intertwined. Yesterday morning I went to a picket to suppot striking supermarket workers, and a vigil in solidarity with the people of Lebanon. I went on these pickets for a number of reasons, but because I believe all these struggles are related - so it matters to me in a practical way if other people win.


  1. Maia, this is a great post.

    I guess I share some but not all of your views but I agree with, what I think, is a key part of your argument, that we protest for both personal and broader reasons.

    I've certainly been involved in some protests that I knew were bound to fail but felt that it was important to voice and alternative to the mainstream. I've also not protested about issues that I felt strongly about because I've thought there was a better way.

    Incidentally, I was at the 97 protest at Parliament (not as a protester though, as a staffer in Parliament). I guess, despite having been in student politics, I didn't agree with the way this protest was managed. I thought too many students were needlessly arrested when they'd in fact made their point and could have moved on.

    I was annoyed when the organisers encouraged the students to slowly advance on the barriers. The point about the stupidity of the Speaker's ruling had been made, the arrests distracted attention away from this (I felt).

  2. Anonymous10:05 am

    This post makes it seem as if you attended University solely in order to participate in protests. Isn't the purpose of attending University to enrich yourself through education? How much change is acutally accomplished through protesting versus bringing about change through ordinary channels such as active involvement on one or the other side of any issue?

  3. As a university academic, I can tell you, Anonymous, that there are many, many reasons for attending university. [By the way, we don't usually capitalize nouns.] As someone on the giving side of the instruction these days, I am astounded by the breadth and variety of my students' reasons for being there, their goals, and what they hope to accomplish during their time in my courses. When I was an undergraduate, I didn't become involved in student politics because, like you, I didn't see how valuable it could be, both socially and for my future career goals. Now I realize that a great deal of change may be accomplished by these protests. And even when they don't have the effect the organizers envisaged, the tremendous amount of hard work and energy that goes into organizing a protest equips the organizers with the practical skills for many different careers. Many student politicians go on to political careers -- and yes, some of them do end up in "active involvement on one or the other side of any issue."

  4. Bond, being an academic is a real job even if you don't see it as such. Academics and universities have numerous important roles to play in society/industry. Slagging off all academics because some can be pompous arses is a little unreasonable don't you think.

  5. You know nothing about my life, my degrees and my job, you illiterate twerp.

  6. What's with all this bandying around of the phrase "never had a real job"? It seems to me that anything that is not a "real job" just happens to be whatever someone wants to dismiss out of hand without creating a real argument.

    Any job is a real job. Let's not get precious about who lives in the "real world" - everyone lives in their real world. (I'm prepared to accept that those who take an awful lot of drugs and thus spend much of their time in an imaginary place may not live in the real world much, but otherwise you're going to have to persuade me).

  7. Sofiya - Your comment about me "You know nothing about my life, my degrees and my job, you illiterate twerp"

    As a surgeon who also has a phd, I find it amusing that you would refer to me as an illitrate twerp.