Liberation in the age of the hashtag activist

Under austerity we tweet #bringbackourgirls from the safety of our laptops: anything else is naive. Liberation means the comprehensive dismantling of hierarchies, but few movements talk about it today. An introduction to Transformation's liberation series.

Ray Filar
20 May 2014
Michelle Obama holds #bringbackourgirls sign

Hashtag: international causes. Michelle Obama's intervention quickly became a meme. Credit: Twitter.

When did everybody stop talking about liberation? These days the idea seems positively archaic, a relic from the offline, flag waving era. An ancient buzzword straight out of Game of Thrones. 

Instead, in place of social agitation, non-Nigerians type #bringbackourgirls from behind the safety of a laptop, bandwagoning onto an originally Nigerian-led movement. Everyone knows that kidnapping is bad; even Michelle Obama agrees. Brits Twitter-railed against the Russian anti-homophobic propaganda law, despite 40 UK schools still using the similar Section 28 law up until last year. And before that white people frantically tweeted #kony2012, five minutes on Wikipedia enabling more than enough expertise on Ugandan politics. Hashtag: international causes.

Instead of radical change or nuanced politics, we can sit back knowing we 'did our bit', no IRL organizing necessary. But critical thought loses something when reduced to 140 characters. Twitter will not make us free. As with slacktivism or clictivism, the problem is not the medium, but the underlying motive: to assuage the guilt of the privileged.

Maybe I'm nostalgic for a past I didn't personally experience. Past liberation movements – women's liberation, the civil rights movement, or the gay liberation front – genuinely wanted to change the world, not just to gain rights, but to completely rewrite an impoverished status quo. 

In some ways, they succeeded. Yet asylum seekers around the world are held in detention centres for no reason. The seven demands of women's liberation still hold today as much as ever. There are still 77 countries where it's an official crime to be gay. South African apartheid is officially over, but research shows two thirds of Africans don't have piped water inside their homes, in comparison to 5% of whites.

Past activists found out it is easier to wrest legal recognition and political inclusion from a dominant culture than it is to fundamentally overhaul it. Bitter rights battles have won a limited form of institutional acceptance for some minority groups, but only on condition that the minorities become more like the majorities. So the equal rights struggle is co-opted; we become less and less liberated.

The struggle for equal marriage is only the most recent example of this. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was spot on when he described gay marriage as a conservative cause. Non-straight people can gain access to straight institutions, but only as long as we give up on the socially threatening queer radical shtick and talk about how 'normal' we are.

Little changes. Members of groups who faced more discrimination in the past now – in some countries - face less. Sometimes greater rights are encoded in new laws, as with the 1991 English law that made it a crime to rape your spouse

In some countries marriage no longer legally confers sexual access, but the same patriarchal social logic that insists that justice can only be served by the report>trial>prison model makes it wholly unlikely that survivors will emerge from court with a rape conviction, or that prison will be rehabilitatative. 

Despite the prevalence of the 'it gets better' mentality, society at large stays pretty much the same. The dominant structures remain intact. Liberation requires much more than this.

When it comes to sexual violence, we might dare to reimagine a society in which it isn't shameful to report rape, in which allegations are believed and survivors supported, in which the racist, classist prison system is abolished in favour of genuine community accountability, in which comprehensive consent-based sex education is routine, and in which sexual violence is understood as a violation of bodily autonomy rather than a theft of honour.

Liberation means the comprehensive dismantling of hierarchical systems so that both freedom and equality are made real. But increasingly few movements talk about how to make it happen today.

That's not just because people are lazy. One of the major successes of neoliberal government has been to stigmatise critical, anti-hierarchical, uplifting activism. The rhetoric of more combative decades seems naïve, or no longer possible. Its a new age, we are told, we have to put aside our student ideals and become hardworking families. Austerity says that making money and getting ahead are the highest moral values.

Since 2010, the UK's coalition government has raised false realpolitik to an artform. It was tough, they said, but we had to cut public spending. Welfare was crying out for decimation. Nobody really needs disability support. We had to privatise the National Health Service, despite promising not to.

In the guise of the pragmatic, the necessary, the hard decisions that must be made, the chasm between rich and poor grows ever wider; so we are divided and ruled.

Under such an onslaught, anything more than polite reformism becomes idealism. NGOs and charities are barely tolerated, the angry dispossessed retreat into despair and resignation. The jobcentre is not the best place to plan a revolution: you aren't even allowed to put your hands in your pockets there. Our political paradigms make solidarity with others – particularly those who are less privileged than us - impossible. This is a society in which one of our major newspapers can falsely claim free food vouchers at a food bank under the auspices of “investigative journalism”.

Systematic injustice is never an acceptable target for public anger. This has to be reserved for already-disadvantaged people suspected, simply because of their disadvantage, of playing the system for small gains. With dissent suppressed, the blame attaches to the Romanians moving in next door. Easy targets become “the problem”, the real causes are made invisible. 

And so we happily jump on the latest new media cause célèbre, buying into the theory of progressive change, while at the same casting a suspicious eye around us. Liberation relies on a critical mass of people, on at least functional unity within a movement. Enough people have to not just believe in cultural transformation, but get together to make it happen. Though it's easy to lampoon privilege checking – creating change means constantly re-examining your role in both maintaining and dismantling hierarchical power. 

Over the next few weeks on Transformation our writers will explore these questions, asking: what does liberation mean today? We will be looking beyond equality under the law, and outside online activism, to explore ideas of liberation and liberation movements today. 

It would be trite to argue that in a digital culture where we all sit alone, iPad in hand, group solidarity is necessarily unthinkable. But social media is performative: displaying your causes to others for public recognition is not a solid basis for the long-term, collaborative fight that gains slow ground.

In reality liberation work is unsexy. Real social and cultural change is hard to achieve. It happens out of the spotlight, after the 'moment', after the mainstream media have got bored and moved on.

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