What makes students stand up and take action?

November 04, 2015
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The term ‘slacktivism’ can suitably describe some cases of digital activism; that is, the ‘likes’, photos, videos and shared statuses that support certain causes. Indeed, some social media campaigns seem like the digital version of an old man yelling at a cloud.

‘Apathetic’ certainly isn’t a new label for today’s students, but like an episode of Mythbusters, I’m going to break it down. Commentators and critics describe students as indifferent - and maybe they are when compared to idolised rallies, protests and marches that were elements of the largest social movements throughout history. However, there are some students of the digital age who are actually creating some important social enterprises of their own.

Taking action

In 2015, James Cook University has seen a bunch of students speaking out on issues they care passionately about; passion, emotion and empathy will always be the fundamental keys to unleashing student action.

On one hand, there are people who will offer well-meaning ‘likes’ but not donate time or money, and on the other, there are students like Angus Lane and Jonathan Bester. A sense of what is right, as well as a fierce passion and connection with local and global issues, drove them to encourage other students to get off their arses and make a difference. They don’t take action in the hunt for bonus credits or to get recognised on the way to class; they act because they believe in their ability to create change.

Universities are the pinnacle of society’s collective wisdom. When they take a stance against something, society follows.

Angus is a medical student at JCU who willingly explains why he has stepped beyond digital limitations. He contacted a government office seeking clarity about why children are being kept in detention. The justification, which he felt was lacking detail, reduced him to tears and left him feeling “horrible”, but he didn’t post a self-indulgent melodramatic status in response. Instead, he started organising feverishly, and on Friday October 30, gathered nearly 300 students and staff from JCU to join the national movement to express opposition to the Border Force Act. Together they posed for a photo similar to Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital’s act of protest towards children being held in detention.

Angus is not alone in believing in the influence of universities. Jonathan, a JCU marine biology student, came to university expecting to find rallies and protests, but found that apathy was more common than activism. Classes about human ignorance and excessive consumption drove Jonathan to speak on behalf of ecosystems that can’t voice their opposition to human hedonism. Subsequently, he founded ActNow>, a group that has been campaigning for JCU to divest from any companies associated with fossil fuels.

The power of community

Angus firmly believes in the power of voices coming together and wanted to add to the growing national chorus. He was thrilled at the turnout for the photo, but more about the way it brought everyone together. “We're weren't just medical students or physios or lecturers or pharmacists or other students segregated by course or position,” he says. “We were friends and colleagues united behind a single cause.”

Jonathan also emphasises universities’ potential impact. “Universities are the pinnacle of society’s collective wisdom,” he says. “When they take a stance against something, society follows.”

It doesn’t matter that they are the biggest, most powerful corporations in the world. We have people power, and that’s worth a lot more.

The companies Jonathan is opposing don’t daunt him. “It doesn’t matter that they [fossil fuel companies] are the biggest, most powerful corporations in the world. We have people power, and that’s worth a lot more.”

Gathering likeminded individuals and building a sense of community are distinguishing features of physical social movements in contrast to digital ones. The motivation of Angus, Jonathan and students who are willing to stand up and stand together for those who can’t speak for themselves ensures that 21st Century people movements won’t be trapped in smart phones and computer screens.

Student activism isn’t about convincing others you’re right; it’s about creating the opportunity for conversations about where society is and where it’s going. Sometimes, when a student explains how much a situation appals them, they provoke others to accept, or at least consider, their viewpoint. However, what’s equally important as students taking action is that universities, wherever they are, are willing to give students a voice and hear their concerns. These concerns are part of larger conversations that are a crucial part of a functioning society.

Patch Clapp

Patch is a communications and science student at James Cook University. His ambition is to be an explorer with a purpose.

Image: Jesse Clockwork, Flickr Creative Commons license