Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly support the right of overpaid columnists, Liberal politicians and shock jocks to ridicule and deride protests. I respect that they have a system to defend and mates in the Business Council to worry about – good people who are doing it tough as a result of this unpopular budget. But I have to admit my dismay at the way some of them have gone about it lately. I fear they are only alienating people and undermining their cause.
For instance, was it really the best move to send Amanda Vanstone into the frontline of battle against disaffected youth? Did it occur to no one that it might be irksome for such a wealthy and privileged figure to attack so savagely those in the firing line of the government’s budget? Let’s face it: someone who personally sat on the Commission of Audit labelling student protesters “disguised louts” and “thugs” was never going to go down well. Total own goal.
And the touchy feely types are no better. Annabel Crabb, for one, has discredited liberals everywhere with her argument that protest is outdated in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps her judgment has been affected by too much wining and dining with politicians, but does she really believe that any self-respecting university student today thinks that expressing sad feelings in cyberspace about the corporatisation of education is going to have any impact on government? Indeed, where would we be if the Egyptians in Tahrir Square had thought that?
Claiming that hash-tags are as effective as action will only alienate those who might otherwise be convinced to give up on social change. Today’s information-age youth just won’t buy that, and modern day admonishing techniques need to adjust accordingly.
I am furthermore not at all convinced that hearts and minds will be won through defending the right of Liberal government figures and right wing ideologues to swan around university campuses without interruption.
Sure, media commentators may know these people as old school mates, neighbours and friends, but let’s not forget that students are familiar with them only insofar as they have been responsible for trashing higher education. And is anyone really surprised when students object to security guards assaulting them simply because they asked a challenging question of a public figure?
The assumption is that the rich and powerful are entitled to respect "just because" might have cut the mustard in 1969, but today’s tech-savvy youth want credible, properly researched reprimanding.
The radicals among them won’t be demoralised, nor the waverers coopted, if respectable hand-wringing fails to move with the times. Winning people to relying on the ALP to change things, or to accepting the status quo, will take more than ill-informed arguments that everyone’s heard a thousand times before. If protests are ever to become hopelessly timid, ineffective and easy to ignore – and I think this is what we would all like to see – media pundits simply must do better.
The misguided tactics being adopted by today’s social commentators, led no doubt by a minority within them hell-bent on fomenting trouble, are only encouraging further protest. This in turn is giving the masses a sense of their own collective power, strengthening their organisations and leading to a deeper understanding of the issues involved – and no one wins from that. Worse still, it is enabling the media to portray politicians – those who should command the greatest respect – as weak and vulnerable. This only corrupts our great democracy, the crushing uniformity of which is the envy of the world.
I am not pretending to have all the answers to how pundits today might better sell passivity and apathy to an increasingly restive public. It might be that all that is possible is to decry protesters as violent and a threat to civilisation and hope for the best (and that no one mentions the $12 billion being spent on fighter jets to kill people). But it is certainly incumbent on them to try.