Beyond the Digital-Unraveling the Term

first posted here

By Maesy Angelina in the Digital Natives

After discussing Blank Noise’s politics and ways of organizing, the current post explores whether activism is still a relevant concept to capture the involvement of people within the collective. I explore the questions from the vantage point of the youth actors, through conversations about how they relate with the very term of activism.

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Youth's Popular Imagination of Activism

As a start, I need to clarify that ‘activism’ is not a concept that the participants are generally concerned with. For a majority of them, the conversation we had was the first time they thought of what the term means and reflect whether their engagement with Blank Noise is activism. Regardless of whether one identifies Blank Noise as a form of activism or not, all participants share a popular idea of what activism is.

Generally speaking, at an abstract level all participants saw activism as passionately caring about an injustice and taking action to create social change. At a more tangible level, all participants mentioned three elements as popular ideas about doing activism. The first is the existence of a concrete demands as a solution to the identified problem, such as asking for service provision or state regulations. Since these demands are structural, activism is also seen dealing with formal authority figures in the traditional sense of politics, the state. The second is the intensity and commitment required to be an activist, for many participants being an activist means having prolonged engagement, taking risks, and making the struggle a priority in one’s life. In other words, being an activist means “... being neck-deep, spending most if not all of your time, energy, and resources for the cause” (Dev Sukumar, male, 34). The third element relates to the methods, called by some as ‘old school’: shouting slogans, holding placards, and doing marches on the streets – all enacted in the physical public space. This popular imagination of activism becomes the orientation for participants in deciding whether Blank Noise is a form of activism and whether they are activists for being involved in it.

Activism as the Intention and Action

“I have an idea of what activism is but not what it exactly looks like.”

(Apurva Mathad, male, 28).

For those who think that Blank Noise is a form of activism, there was a differentiation between the idea at the abstract level and how it is manifested at a more tangible level. The definition of activism is the abstract one, while the popular ideas of doing activism do not define the concept but present the most common out many possible courses of actions. Blank Noise is fulfils all the elements in the abstract definition: a passion about an injustice, having an aim for social change, and acting to achieve the aim. Hence, Blank Noise is activism, but the way it manifests itself does not adhere to the popular imagination of doing activism. The distinction between Blank Noise’s methods with popular ones was emphasized, along with the difference in articulating goals.

Interestingly, not all participants who share this line of thinking called themselves as activists for being involved in an activism. Again, it must be reiterated that no participants ever really thought of giving a name to their engagement prior to the interview. Instead of saying ‘I am an activist’, they said ‘I guess I could be called an activist’ for the fact that they are sharing the passion and being actively involved in a form of activism, albeit in an unconventional manner.

Those who would categorize Blank Noise as activism but not call themselves activists related with a particular element on the popular idea of doing activism, which is getting “neck-deep”. They were helpers, volunteers, idea spreaders, but not an activist because their lives are not dedicated for the cause or their involvements were based on availability. On the other hand, these participants all said that Jasmeen is an activist for being completely dedicated to Blank Noise from its inception until today.

Activism as Particular Ways of Doing and Being

“What are the repercussions if activism is so fluidly defined? It can mean not questioning

privilege... not seeing the class divisions and still call yourself activist.”

(Hemangini Gupta, female, 29).

Most participants did not consider Blank Noise as an activism. Generally, this can be explained by the discrepancies between Blank Noise and the popular imagination on the tangible ways of doing activism. Blank Noise does not propose a concrete solution or make concrete demands to an established formal structure nor did it march on the streets and make slogans. However, the underlying attitude to this point of view is not of a younger generation finding the ‘old’ ways of doing activism obsolete. Rather, there was an acknowledgement that the issue itself causes the different ways of reading an issue and taking actions to address it.

Furthermore, there is an appreciation to the achievements and dedication of activists that deterred them from calling themselves activists. These people referred to their occasional participation and the fact that Blank Noise is not the main priority in their lives as a student or young professional despite being a cause they are passionate about. As reflected in the opening quote, being an activist for some participants also means deeply reflecting on their self position in terms of class, acknowledging their privileges, and putting themselves in a position that will enable them to imagine the experience of people who are also affected by the issue but has a different position in the society. In other words, being an activist is not just about doing but also about critically reflecting on one’s position in relation to the issue and how it influences the way an issue is being pushed forward. Thinking that they are not up to these standards, these youth choose to call themselves ‘volunteers’, ‘helpers’, or ‘supporters’.

Youth: The Activist, the Apathetic, and the Everyday

“Blank Noise is a public and community street arts collective that is volunteer-led and attempts to create public dialogue on the issue of street sexual violence and eve teasing.”

(Jasmeen Patheja)

“... a group of people against street sexual harassment and eve teasing.”

(Kunal Ashok, men, 29)

“... an idea that really works.”

(Neha Bhat, 19)

As clarified before, the participants did not use the words ‘movement’ and very few used ‘activism’ during our conversations. Instead, the terms they used to describe Blank Noise are represented in the quotes above: collective, community, group, project, and even as an idea. These phrases do not carry the same political baggage that ‘movement’ or ‘activism’ would; they also do not conjure a particular imagination that the other two terms would. These phrases are de-politicized and informal; they imply fluidity, lack of hierarchy, and room for manoeuvre.

The implied meanings in the terms reflect the debates on the average youth and political engagement. For the past decade, various youth scholars criticized the dichotomy of youth as either activists or apathetic in explaining the global trend of decreased youth participation in formal politics. The activists are either politically active Digital Natives engaged in new forms of social movements influenced heavily by new media or sub-cultural resistances, which only account for a fraction of the youth population that are mostly completely apathetic. This dichotomy ignored the ‘broad “mainstream” young people who are neither deeply apathetic about politics on unconventionally engaged’ (Harris et al, 2010).

These mainstream young people actually are socially and politically engaged in ‘everyday activism’ (Bang, 2004; Harris et al, 2010). These are young people who are personalizing politics by adopting causes in their daily behaviour and lifestyle, for instance by purchasing only Fair Trade goods, or being very involved in a short term concrete project but then stopping and moving on to other activities. The emergence of these everyday activists are explained by the dwindling authority of the state in the emergence of major corporations as political powers (Castells, 2009) and youth’s decreased faith in formal political structures which also resulted in decreased interest in collectivist, hierarchical social movements in favour of a more individualized form of activism (Harris et al, 2010). Internet and new media technologies are credited as an enabling factor, being a space and a medium for young people to express their everyday activism.

All of the research participants, perhaps with the exception of Jasmeen as the only one who has constantly been the driver Blank Noise its entire seven years, are these everyday makers, people who were involved with the Blank Noise either on a daily basis as a commentator, one-time project initiator and leader, or people who were active when they are available but remain dormant at other times. Blank Noise is a space where these individual forms of engagement could be exercised while remaining as a collective. The facilitation is not only by the flexibility of coming and going, but also the lack of rigid group rules and the approach of allowing Blank Noise to be interpreted differently by individuals. Considering that the mainstream urban youth are everyday makers who would not find ‘old’ or ‘new’ social movements appealing, this can be the reason why Blank Noise became so popular among youth; however, I would also argue that the fact that Blank Noise is the first to systematically address eve teasing is a determining cause.

The implications of this finding, together with other concluding thoughts, will be shared in the next and final post in the Beyond the Digital series.

This is the ninth post in the Beyond the Digital series, a research project that aims to explore new insights to understand youth digital activism conducted by Maesy Angelina with Blank Noise Project under the Hivos-CIS Digital Natives Knowledge Programme.

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