One of the questions we face in presenting this (or any) movement, is the question of why it is necessary. Not that people do not recognise there is a problem, they certainly do; but rather that they do not see why we need a movement to fix it. Surely, the thinking goes, there are those who see the problem, and they are doing their best to fix it and be better people, and there are those who do not see the problem, and never will. To ask the former people to wear a badge is not only unnecessary but distracting, adding tribalism or flag-waving to what, ultimately, is just about being a decent human being.
To answer that query, I’m going to tell you a story. For those of you outside Australia, you need a fair bit of background, so please, stick with me.
In Australia, just as in other countries, we have radio shock-jocks. They are typically right-wing, inflammatory personalities given to dreams of vainglorious quixoticism which in fact are simply exercises in stroking their own egos, and in these quests they typically oversimplify facts, drown out debate and preach righteous anger. One of the most pernicious examples of these folks is a man called Alan Jones. Alan Jones has made a living – a vastly well-paid living – over the last twenty years or so speaking on right-wing talkback radio under the glorified image of being a voice for the people. Some times he has even taken that position beyond his microphone and added his voice, fame and media control to political issues.
The illusion he presents is of course false. He is not the voice of any people. He is stridently supportive of the conservative party in Australia (dubbed the Liberal party, confusingly) to the point of gleefully publishing their own propaganda. This, combined with his proven habit of taking large sums of money from various industries and special interest groups to speak in their favour has earned him the nickname “The Parrot”. But he not only lies about himself and his position, he of course lies about his opposition and their positions. He has been regularly found guilty by broadcasting regulartory bodies of direct, outright lies about government policy, recorded facts and long-standing scientific research. His lies are used to enforce his views which are not only rightwing but as reactionary as possible, criticising any force that is against the status quo and regularly targetting for attack the very weakest groups in society, such as refugees, immigrants and other minorities. His unrepentant tendencies to be abusive, defamatory, exclusionary, bigotted and hatemongering have earned him a reputation as one of the most despised men in the country – but his loyal audience, the owners of his radio station, and the sponsors who back his radio time, adore him.
Slowly, however, his crimes – actual crimes – have begun to bring him down. More and more the regulatory bodies have been called into investigate his “inaccuracies” and have censured him. In 2005 he incited a race riot by calling for white Australians to react violently to Lebanese immigrants; 7 years later he was found guilty by the media courts, and an official apology has been ordered, some damages to be paid. Those who believed he should be perhaps taken off air for these and so much more wondered what kind of activities it would take for that to happen.
Then, a month ago, without realising it at first, two woman changed everything.
On the 31st of August, Alan Jones was commenting on the Australian Prime Minister, a woman he has selected as a target for particularly barbed attacks. She is a natural target because her party is not his party of choice (the more progressive Labor party) but as with many media commentators on the Prime Minister, his attacks on her were far more vehement than he would reserve for a male, whatever their politics. He was equally vicious when attacking other female “enemies” in the political arena, something that had become a favourite topic. When the Prime Minister was speaking at an event in the Pacific Islands about a program designed to encourage women of those regions to enter politics, she stated that societies only reach their full potential when women are participating. Alan, working in a narrative that most of his current targets for scorn were female, reacted to that statement with disbelief and rage. He screamed “Women are destroying the joint!”.
Accustomed to being lambasted for daring to be in politics at all, women responded to another overt example of this misogyny in the press and across social media. It made world headlines, in fact. Academic, writer and lecturer Jane Caro tweeted:
Got time on my hands tonight so thought I’d spend it coming up with new ways of “destroying the joint” being a woman & all. Ideas welcome.
The twitter-sphere enjoyed the joke and joined in with enthusiasm. #destroyingthejoint became one of the highest trending hash-tags on twitter. Jane Caro and Jenna Price realised there was a lot of anger out there, both about Jones and against those who wanted women to shut up and stay out of politics, and whose attitudes were obvious in the misogynistic tones and language they used. Ms Price created a @JointDestroyer twitter feed, and then a Destroying the Joint facebook group, which soon had over ten thousand(!) members. T-shirts and badges were made. Events followed. A social media community was created and fostered into the real world.
Then Alan put his head over the parapet one more time. Speaking at a public event a little over a week ago, Alan Jones decided to make a joke about the very recent death of Prime Minister’s father, saying that her father likely “died of shame” at her political record. The callousness of this remark reverberated across the entire country, and the anger echoed across social media once again.
It was not the first time there had been a gigantic output of rage from the Australian community against Jones. It had happened countless times before. It was part of his legend, it was proof to him and his faithful of his importance, and his power. Being hated made him great, and even those who opposed him knew the outrage would do nothing to stop him continuing his program and making money. That, at least, was the assumed truth, the accepted wisdom. He made money by shock, so nothing he said could ever be shocking enough to unseat him.
But things had changed since the last time. Social media was now in full swing. More importantly, tens of thousands of people were primed to use it. Primed, fostered, encouraged and emboldened by the Destroy the Joint movement. The Joint Destroyers were quickly joined by other social media campaigns, most prominently a Sack Alan Jones group, and an online petition on Change.org. Within days, 100,000 people had signed that petition to call for Jones to be sacked. Meanwhile, the social media group numbers swelled, and their leaders put them to work. Every day, Jenna Price and associates recorded who advertised on Jones’ radio show, and directed her audience – growing ever more enormous – to send complaints to those companies. Her followers were eager to respond. After a week of this, more than a hundred companies had pulled their advertising and yesterday, Alan Jones’ radio program was forced to go to air without any advertising at all. No small thing when the man’s time on radio is the most expensive radio time available in the country. The damage to the radio company and its parent company is of the order of millions of dollars. Their share price has plummeted. There are now questions about whether said company can afford to keep Jones on air.
The accepted wisdom said that Jones was absolutely, fundamentally untouchable. That nothing could ever stop him doing what he did. No matter what laws he broke, no matter what lies he told, no matter how hate-filled his invective, no matter how much poison he spoke, no matter how much he polluted debate and society by doing so, he was here forever.
The accepted wisdom was wrong. He is not gone, but he has been wounded more than anyone could have ever imagined.
The accepted wisdom was that “slacktivism”, politics via social media and the like, is weak and powerless and could never accomplish anything.
The accepted wisdom was wrong. It can accomplish the impossible.
And it happened not just because of social media, and not just because of twenty years of Alan Jones’ lies and harted and not just because women are becoming more and more tired of the obvious bigotry aimed towards them, and not just because that bigotry has become increasingly clearer with a woman as Prime Minister. It also happened because all that anger had a focus. Because social media had a flag to rally around. What began as a little joke became one of the most powerful movements in the history of Australian politics because it brought people together behind one powerful idea.
Forgive my hubris, please. I am not egotistical enough to suggest that my cause is as important or as universal as the cause of Destroying the Joint, or even that we might ever have such influence. But I am inspired by this success. It shows me what a hash-tag can accomplish. It can become a flag that brings hundreds of thousands of people together into a powerful, wonderful force for change – a force that can accomplish the impossible.
And that’s why I started this. To give us a flag. It might not catch on in exactly the same way, but maybe it will. Maybe it will bring people together who are united on this issue, who share a passion for making things better. Maybe together we can change the environment on a massive scale – and accomplish what accepted wisdom says is impossible.
I’m keen to find out. If you are too, please, join the facebook group, follow us on twitter, buy a t-shirt – and use the hashtag. Send #theMESSAGE.