This is the second part of our first ever LoyarBorak discussion. Part 1 is here. It is inspired by a piece written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker, and a response by Syazwina Saw (prefacing each section in italics).
The participants are Adrian Chew, Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Marcus van Geyzel and Syahredzan Johan. Syazwina has a right to reply. Do get involved in this and continue the borak session in the comments section below.
If you are interested to partake in our upcoming borak sessions, drop Marcus an email here:[email protected].
MOBILISATION vs ARMCHAIR ACTIVISM
Gladwell’s article wasn’t addressing the likes of the guy handing out pamphlets in Chow Kit Road or the lady organising free meals for the homeless. He was talking to you and me.
Once upon a time in Malaysia, there was this thing called a university students’ union. It existed for the students, by the students, created from independent campus elections and driven to making students as independent as possible. The campus community felt alive – students had their say, and made sure they did. If dissatisfaction arose, they would protest peacefully to get their point across.
But then, one sad, sad day in 1971, this independent voice was driven to silence by the approval of the University and University Colleges Act in Parliament. And so while campus elections and student unions still existed, their drive and spirit were removed; their vivacity gone. Generations of university students were told that politics were beyond their reach, was the property of politicians, and should not be played with. Later on, they were told that they were “too immature” to fully participate in politics. This, coupled with a mainstream media that did not hide their admiration for the governing powers, created an atmosphere of either ardent trust or distinct apathy.
We are so caught up with our newfound voices that we have forgotten the truth of activism, and of life in general – that for things to actually happen, it takes more than words. Our solidarity, now ensconced in Facebook and Twitter, often does not move beyond it.
We have become armchair activists, online movers and Internet shakers, all of which are paradoxical job descriptions (unless you’re Steve Jobs). No longer do we go door-to-door, when our conscience is so easily coaxed by simply clicking the “LIKE” button. We complain, whine and blog about the world not being a better place from behind the safety and comfort of our laptops, desktops, BlackBerrys and iPhones. Once upon a time, you had to risk imprisonment to effect change. Now it seems enough to just tweet about it.
The line between information and movement has been blurred, and it’s hard to tell if we did it on purpose or because we know no different. My point is, Gladwell had it right. He was talking to the middle-class, Western or West-imitating, internet-savvy bourgeoisie – his target audience – and telling them a thing or two about what it means to stand up for something. To actually stand up, and not at a candlelight vigil.
It’s one thing to retweet news about the UKM4, but quite another to be going out there in full support of the four individuals who are in the middle of this storm, sourcing funds for their court battles, and constantly campaigning for their cause in the media and with sympathetic members of the public.
What I’m trying to say is that Twitter’s great for mobilising those who are not really associated with your movement but strongly motivated by your cause. But again, just because it mobilises support, it doesn’t mean you’ll get people to come out in the open and stand up to injustice. That requires a degree of personal sacrifice not many are willing to give just by reading a tweet.
I will say this. Let us first accept that verbal communication (i.e. speaking to someone on the phone) is quite different from sending the person an e-mail or a tweet. We would be able to hear the person’s voice, gather an impression of the person’s facial expression as well as deal with any concerns immediately. A rapport is built instantly.
Speaking from my limited experience at the Bar (starting out in 1997) when e-tools were not in vogue then, how did we get lawyers to attend an event, litigate a case or hold a demonstration? We had to pick up the phone and speak to them, and then hold a meeting. It was tedious but effective. We communicated. Today, we write on an e-group and try to have online discussions. Sometimes we get no reply, or worse still, because we can’t see the facial expression of the correspondent replying on the other side, we miscommunicate.
Building a network purely by e-group or Twitter is not sustainable in the long run because there is a lack of what I might call, “personable personality”. What I see as dangerous is the present journey of conflation – first, a confusion, then misappropriation and finally, a replacement of “on-the-ground mobilisation” with “e-tools activism”. I don’t blame the younger generation who did not experience the transition to e-tools as there is to them no yardstick for comparison (e.g. the fax machine).
It’s as simple as this. On the MyConsti e-group, whenever we have an event (and we have a fairly large number of events), we e-mail out a call for volunteers. Few respond. Sometimes no one does. Those who made the call-out feel demoralised. I ask why. They say there is little interest in the event. I say you can’t say that because you have not really attempted to organise or mobilise a team. You cannot expect to send e-mails seeking volunteers to be sufficient. Make the dreaded phone call, and seek out to meet them. They try doing that and it works.
Movers cannot assume that once the e-mail is sent, I have moved myself and the community. And if no one responds then that is all I can do.
It seems that “armchair activism” is a bad word these days. But should it really be? Does the fact that someone is not willing to take to the streets mean that he doesn’t truly care about a cause?
There are various methods of social activism. Rallies and candlelight vigils are one of them. But so is signing a petition, forwarding an email, creating a Facebook page, or tweeting about it.
Real activism impacts the hearts and minds of the people, which is the real catalyst behind a “revolution” of any sort. The discussion of issues in any media has the potential to generate change. Twitter is such a powerful tool in spreading awareness, quickly.
Different types of activism involves, and affects, different types of people.
These days, not many can become full-time activists. Most of us are part-timers, investing time and effort into a cause when we have time and effort to spare. That’s the reality of it. Even if we want to “do something” about it, there are too many considerations weighing on our minds when we want to decide. Will I get caught? Will I go to jail? Will I lose my job?
So while I agree that we can certainly do more, to be truly effective a movement must utilise the strength of each members. Taking the example of my sister, if all she can and willing to do to promote anti-LBGT bullying is by changing her Twitter profile picture, why stop her?
“Purists” may scoff at these forms of activism, seeing them as nothing compared to the “serious” work that they do, but if they are truly passionate about their cause then they should take heed of these “non-traditional” methods of activism.
TWITTER’S ULTIMATE ROLE
“But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism. … A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”
Twitter and Facebook remain what have always been – tools of connection and networking, building common ties more difficult to assemble in reality. Both have been excellent with awareness-building and spreading information. But we are still so dissatisfied because the action has not flowed as steadily as the tweets have. Which is why we’ve been stuck with names like the “UM5” and the “UKM4”. There used to be a time the digits would be in fours, and were a force to reckon with. True, there are external forces to blame, but if social networking has properly informed us, as we say it has, then the next step comes from within. Words shape our world, but actions give it form.
Perhaps the one thing that is true – and that which Gladwell himself acknowledges – is the efficacy of Twitter and Facebook in arming us with the requisite information and awareness. But even so, no amount of information in the world can make us stand in front of a rolling tank. Would you have taken part in the Bersih demonstrations and brave the water cannons purely because of inspiring tweets?
It takes something more, such as the indignation of injustice, compassion for the oppressed and disgust at discrimination that move us to act. These are the forces that truly inspire and fuel revolutions and movements for change. Not 140-character tweets.
I met Syazwina once at a MyConsti workshop then started communicating via Twitter. Adrian was known to me when he actively moved the MyConsti campaign in Sibu, and we have been in touch on the MyConsti e-group as well as on ground events. Syah was verbose on the KL Bar Young Lawyer Committee’s e-group and we met regularly post-MyConsti’s first meeting in 2009. Marcus and I met through Twitter though I had previously heard of his uniquely European sounding name in the fraternity.
At the lowest common denominator, we are on Twitter but does that make each of us an activist since we tweet regularly on controversial issues? Or MyConsti has strengthened the ties between Syazwina, Syah, Adrian and I to the extent that we are ad idem on a particular issue and will organise ourselves around it?
Try putting 100 people who hardly know each other on an e-group and ask them to carry out an initiative as a form of activism without meeting or organising themselves. Before long you would have in-fighting on the one hand among the vocal ones, and on the other, not a word from the silent members.
What’s my point? The “personable personality” of the each is lacking. We can’t know, like or understand each other unless we have organised ourselves even if we held the same views on say, democracy. MyConsti would not have been as successful as it has without members organising, meeting, talking, teasing and hanging out together. But I hope for organising expediency, I would be proven wrong. Using e-tools is so much easier!
LoyarBurok’s experiment of bringing together contributors who have weak or absent ties, and organising ourselves into a community of activists will be a serious attempt to debunk my own views of the matter. I welcome the challenge.
Gladwell’s article has its merits (of course it does, he’s Malcolm Gladwell). But his point is overstated; to say that social media is only good for frivolous, weak-tie relationships is unfair. I suspect he did this intentionally, to garner interest, and reactions.
Change does not have to happen through street protests. A series of tweets may impact more minds than a rally or vigil. I know many who see these rallies/vigils as a waste of time, or an irritant – their hearts and minds are certainly not turned towards a cause because of these types of social activism.
In Malaysia, I believe that the internet, blogs, and now Twitter, have undoubtedly revolutionised the nation. Malaysians no longer have to rely on the mainstream media, and as a result, the mainstream media are now reporting more fairly on many issues, because their readers are more discerning and knowledgeable.
As for Twitter, with almost 200 million registered users tweeting 65 million times a day, it is an information stream that cannot be ignored. Twitter may not bring about another Greensboro, but hey, we don’t live in the 1960s anymore.
I think this is where my views differ from Syazwina’s – she views tweets and the like as “words” while to me these are forms of “actions”. Activism is the practice or action of being involved in a cause, so if what we tweet serves to further that cause then to me, they are actions and not merely words. In fact, sometimes a tweet or an article could create a bigger and more potent ripple than a street protest.
Remember, the 2008 tsunami would probably not have occurred if not for the role played by blogs and online media, despite the Bersih and Hindraf protests. You have a street protest, the government can simply round up all the protesters under some draconian law or another. But imagine if all of Twitterjaya rallied to a cause, how many doors would they have to break down to detain all of us?
Yes, one “LIKE” on an FB page might not be much, but 200,000 more and you’ve got a government and a GLC both scrambling to stem the tide of discontent.
I speak as an armchair activist, knowing full and well that I sit at a safe position of privilege. And I don’t think of myself as being a “real” activist – I acknowledge that time, mobility and other responsibilities (and perhaps a certain amount of laziness) have stopped me from going to the streets and breaking down doors. So what do I do? I tweet, retweet, try and spread the word via Facebook status messages.
But I know the limitations of the medium I use – if I’m lucky, I might get one, maybe two people within my network to sit up and take notice. My problem with Twitter is that it’s saturated – we follow each other and fool ourselves into thinking that we’re onto something. And then we go out in the real world and realise there are so many people who still have no clue, so many who rely on mainstream media to understand the world around them, so many who choose apathy over asking questions. Online revolution or no, the majority of the rakyat are untouched by it.
Which is why a tweet, to me, is the least a person can do, and until we Malaysians actually get out there and get things moving, we remain the knowing but silent minority.
This has been another awesome contribution to the world brought to you by LoyarBurok. Little wonder.
Adrian sits in a room somewhere in Sarawak watching a dying river flow. Yellowing books on his shelves and blank sheets of paper on his desk, he continues to write if only to search for his voice, despite stillborn sentences never filling up a page. Follow his journey to becoming a writer on The Reading Monk and @Reading_Monk.
Edmund continues various escape techniques in his attempts to be rid of Lord Bobo’s control and the Bar Council’s influence. He is on a crusade to abolish the institution of marriage and build love movements though he thinks love is an illusion. And so he tweets @edmundbon.
Marcus is a corporate/commercial solicitor in Kuala Lumpur, who tweets @vangeyzel. He believes that the only certainty in life is that everything can be explained by the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter.
Syahredzan is a young lawyer and a partner at a legal firm in Kuala Lumpur. He fancies himself to be a political critic and social commentator. In truth, he is just another Malaysian who is far too opinionated. He is passionately patriotic, although not in the conventional flag-waving way. He believes that Malaysia still has a lot of unfulfilled potential if only its people learned to unite rather than divide. @syahredzan is his handle on Twitter.
Syazwina spends her days subediting legal commentary, her nights studying science philosophy, and the time in between tweeting @syazwinasaw. She rants for a better Malaysia, or so she hopes.