Q&A and lowest common denominator protest

May 12, 2014
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F**k Tony Abbott.

This three word slogan characterises the modern paradigm of angry student protests. I also don’t like Tony Abbott. At all. That’s why I don’t vote for him. I also don’t like Justin Bieber, that’s why I don’t buy his music. I don’t, however, feel the need to wear t-shirts proclaiming 'F**k Justin Bieber'.

Slogans like this are a front for misguided and angry protests with generic, unrealistic demands. Think ‘Occupy’ or ‘March in March’. Last week, we saw yet another example of this happen during the ABC’s live broadcast of Q&A – one of the few places where political issues like the deregulation of higher education can actually be discussed and debated, making it one of the most unnecessary places to protest.

Disclaimer: I think that protests have an extremely strong role in today’s society. Protests performed (and protest is in many ways a performance) in the right way are a fantastic media spectacle that can bring attention to a movement, and help lead to popular support and change. But when performed in the wrong way, they make the average person less sympathetic to a cause, alienate people who these protests often claim to represent, and needlessly inconvenience society.

Society should always promote active discussion around an issue before that issue results in protest. This is because protests inconvenience lots of people for a view that they don’t necessarily share, and also because issues are usually more complex than bipolar views presented by politicians or protesters.

In the context of Q&A, the protesters were angry about the potential deregulation of university fees, and showed this by interrupting the ABC show by chanting: "no cuts, no fees, no corporate universities”. Call me apathetic, but the Whitlam days are over, and I doubt the students were actually advocating for the removal of fees. Or maybe they were. It doesn’t matter because they didn’t get a chance to tell me. This is worsened by the fact that the protesters shouted down Education Minister Christopher Pyne in one of the few places where they could have had an actual discussion with him!

In a video later posted by those involved with the protest, the students justified their action by labelling Q&A a place to “politely ask pre-approved questions that politicians don't actually answer”. I completely disagree with this. In fact, one of the protesters was able to ask a question about deregulation, but the protest began before Pyne was able to answer. In the past, Pyne has had his unpopular views around gay marriage thoroughly challenged on Q&A by other panellists. I can imagine a rational challenge about education cuts would have been much more powerful to the average Joe than watching their show taken off air because of angry students.

It’s hard not to label these sorts of protests as really rude. They isolate people who disagree with the protesters’ point of view, and sometimes turn people away from them. Another example of this was the ‘Stop Police Brutality’ rally last March. The ensuing protest – complete with ‘f**k the police’ and ‘all cops are bastards’ banners – was simply unnecessarily offensive, and said nothing to the public other than ‘we’re prepared to generalise all police based on one complaint’. This was no different to the F**k Tony Abbott t-shirts seen at March in March (and too often around my UTS campus).

Protests performed on generic sentiment often completely ignore the fact that there a variety of views held by people in society. Consider March in March: not liking the elected government (especially when we have a pretty solid democratic system) is just not good enough reason for a protest. I don’t like the current government either, but unfortunately the majority of people do, otherwise they wouldn’t be in power. These kinds of messages are far too broad to incite change, and the incitement of change is something that’s pretty crucial element to any legitimate protest.

One protester from the Q&A response video claimed “true democracy is on the streets”. No – it’s not. It’s a representative system of government characterised by elected officials. Just because some people don’t have the entitlement issues necessary to inconvenience everyone to illustrate a particular view which people already know exist, doesn’t mean their views have any less worth than those of a protester.

Another group of people who angrily march around with a view not held by everyone are the Westboro Baptist Church. People hate them because they shout down anyone who disagrees with them, and they think their opinions are more correct than everyone else’s. We all have different views, but, when you think about it, slogans like ‘F**k Tony Abbott’ and ‘All Cops are Bastards’ are just as simplistic and narrow-minded as ‘God Hates Fags’.

I do see that the benefit of creating a public discourse around issues, but in the case of Q&A or March In March, the majority of media attention is about the disruption rather than the issues. This problem may lie with the media, but the end result is the same: stagnation of progress. I feel a protest outside Pyne’s office, broadcast on mainstream media, would have been more effective than disrupting a live television show. This is because it’s more logical to inconvenience Pyne when you’re angry at him, than all of the people tuning into Q&A. Getting publicity doesn’t have to involve a publicity stunt.

Protests do have a really important place in society, but it’s important to get the public onside by not swearing or isolating people who don’t agree with you, like the pacifism seen during the US Civil Rights movement, and to have a distinct and realistic goal, such as marriage equality rather than ‘toppling the Australian government and lynching Abbott’, and to not make public fools of yourself.

NOTE: To anyone considering blocking the doors of my university on May 21 because you disagree with decisions made by politicians – please don’t. I have enough trouble getting my assessments in on time anyway.

Sam Caldwell

Sam Caldwell goes to The University of Technology, Sydney and is studying a BA Communications (Journalism). He’s also a passionate debater.