One of the consistent themes that emerged from the chaotic melange of speculation surrounding Monday’s horrifying cafe siege on Sydney’s Martin Place was the reaction of people on social media.
The hashtag #illridewithyou quickly began trending as concerned Australians sought a way to promote solidarity with Muslim members of the community – fearful they might be the victims of reprisal attacks. I watched on Twitter as the hashtag grew out of a single tweeted offer by a genuinely concerned individual, @sirtessa, and was endorsed widely across the social network:
Now, there are many reasons, I am sure, why people were doing this. Prime amongst these was as an expression of support and care for people who often – particularly where these attacks have occurred overseas – bear the brunt of community backlash.
As the siege itself stretched throughout the day, I was personally blasted with the usual invective from racists and bigots on twitter, remarks like these:
I mean, whatever, I don’t really care what some random on Twitter says to me, but it got me thinking: if this is what is said to people suggesting we should be calm and not take our grief out on Muslims, what might actual Muslims be facing?
Australia doesn’t have a particularly distinguished track record in this field – the Cronulla Riots in 2005 come to mind, and more recently the Abbott Government attempted (unsuccessfully) to legislate the ‘Right to be a Bigot’ and briefly instituted a kind of parliamentary apartheid against Muslim women.
So here, now, where there was an attack by a man who was utilising Islamic iconograpy, how would Australians react?
Thankfully, with compassion, and concern, and reasoned calm. And I find it inspiring.
Predictably, some commentators – commentators who I have a great deal of respect for, I might add – have chimed in that a hashtag isn’t good enough, that #illridewithyou is more about the person posting it publicly ‘performing’ solidarity, or making themselves feel less guilty, or providing wiggle-room for politicians to avoid responsibility for racist policy.
The same criticisms are made of a variety of attempts to take online activism into the real world – March in March, Destroy The Joint – almost like a kind of reverse Tall Poppy syndrome; where popular movements of public advocacy are delegitimised because they aren’t intellectual enough.
Which is a shame, because for so long we have complained that clicktivism isn’t translating into ‘the real world’ (as though the real world is not completely shot through with the digital already).
While some of these criticisms may have substance, they do not diminish the fundamental goodness of the #illridewithyou ‘moment’. Ultimately, all acts of solidarity are performative – were they not put up for public consumption they wouldn’t have any effect.
And yes, there are definitely clicktivists using this hashtag as a way to absolve themselves of Australia’s racist policies and xenophobic tendencies — BUT, is not the repudiation of that cultural formation a step along the road towards undoing it as a cultural formation? Why, for example, is the ultimately impotent #Occupy movement still elevated by some above say March in March (or even GetUp)?
That compassion on its own is not enough of a force for social change does not need saying – of course there needs to be more than benign good intentions. Political action, rage, reflection, righteous anger, radical love: social movements like emancipation and civil rights depend on a powerful spiritual basis and a thundering material engagement.
My point is this: most of the criticism of #illridewithyou has focused on its lack of concrete action (despite the fact the hashtag is conceived of as a way for Muslim Australians to ride safely with non-Muslim Australians on public transport). If the act of building contact and co-operation between a marginalised community and the mainstream is not concrete enough – and I would actually argue that it actually is – what more action can, indeed should, be taken?
How do we make #illridewithyou a genuine moment of social transformation?
This is the question the critics should be asking in order to be constructive about a political project.
I want to begin by offering a few suggestions:
- At a personal level, commit to displaying the hashtag somewhere when riding public transport. If you’re genuinely committed to the idea, don’t stop because the news cycle has moved on.
- Take it further. Contact your local MP, tell them not to support racist policy when it comes before the parliament. The successful campaign against the repeal of Section 18C shows just how powerful the voices of many communities coming together as one can be for changing bad policy. Do not let the political class off the hook, ever.
- Get out and actively challenge these policies. Go to demonstrations. Or if there aren’t any in your area, organise them. Talk to people, write to media outlets, get your friends on board, spread the word. Make #illridewithyou an enduring expression of support for multiculturalism and celebration of our cultural diversity.
Human civilisation is approaching a zero-point, Piketty and Klein have brought that into the fore neatly this year. Hatred of the Muslim Other is a misrecognition of the problems in the world – the problems we have are created by an exploitative economic system: globalised neoliberal capitalism.
#illridewithyou has become a social media phenomenon, and if we can find ways to bring that action into real life, it might just become a moment of true social transformation: a Blockadia against bigotry.