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Image: Hana Chatani
Image: Hana Chatani

The Sunday EssayApril 4, 2021

The Sunday Essay: When the young stand up

Image: Hana Chatani
Image: Hana Chatani

There’s something magical about teenagers making a stand, and history is almost always on their side, writes Brannavan Gnanalingam.

Made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Hana Chatani

It was 1999, and a group of kids at school got sick of being bullied and beaten up by the jocks. Those being picked on were the goths, the punks, the metalheads, and the kids who didn’t fit into any group and were therefore ignored by those with any power. It was a mufti day and to protest the general indifference to their plight, they dressed up in trench coats.

That may not sound like much, but this was in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine massacre, where two bullied outsiders murdered 13 people while wearing trench-coats. Boys’ schools in the Hutt were pretty conservative places, and globally there were all sorts of moral panics around “weird” kids who wore trench coats. In hindsight, adopting the iconography of mass murderers was, well, a bold call, but it certainly got some attention. Some of them got called into the principal’s office for a please explain. The bullies momentarily paused in case their usual victims turned out to be psychos. In the aftermath, obviously, nothing happened to the bullies.

But one thing that got missed was that a bunch of kids who had no real connection to each other, made some sort of stand in solidarity against mistreatment.

Last week, a protest by Christchurch Girls’ High School hit the news. They were protesting about alleged sexual assault by students at Christchurch Boys’ High School and unpleasant comments in response from students at Boys’ High. The girls had chalked graffiti highlighting LGBTQIA+ rights, feminism, and sexual harassment at Boys’ High. But what they were protesting about was not the main focus. Instead, it was the Girls’ High’s principal’s decision to call in the cops to stop the girls’ protest.

Police say they stopped the students because of “traffic and safety concerns”. Girls’ High’s principal Christine O’Neill, who personally got in a car to turn the protesters around, said, “my concern is primarily for their safety – that they return to school where they’re meant to be, and they understand that there is appropriate and constructive ways to go about social change.” It remains unclear exactly what appropriate and constructive ways to go about social change were being suggested.

Image: Hana Chatani

In my latest novel Sprigs, I looked at the fallout from an incident of sexual violence in high school. As part of that, the novel examined the reaction of the boys, the boys’ school, and those attending a sister school. There has been, it must be said, some parallels between the book and what took place in Christchurch.

Sprigs is a fairly pitiless depiction of teenage boys and institutional incompetence. That approach felt like a necessary choice in showing how artificial environments can be breeding grounds for repulsive behaviour. Institutional responses tend to suppress victims’ voices rather than give them space to talk (if they want to). However, I’m also conscious that teenagers can’t be seen as irredeemable, nor is it fair to expect teenagers to be fully-formed and perfect individuals. They’re impressionable to both positive and toxic messaging – well, like everybody is.

In 2017, there was a similar protest by Wellington East Girls’ students, in response to comments by Wellington College students about taking advantage of drunk girls. The protest outside the school was shut down after boys threatened (allegedly “jokingly”) to run the girls down in cars. Instead, the protest shifted to Parliament where hundreds of young women protested, and a number of young men from the single-sex Wellington College protested alongside them.

The protest at parliament, like the Christchurch Girls’ High School protest, was a clear display of youth standing up for each other. That, and the recent climate change marches, are great indications of how much more clued up many teenagers are these days, compared to my generation, about difference and social change. That for all of the decrying about “snowflakes”, “virtue signalling”, and “identity politics”, it’s easy to forget that many teenagers are pretty well versed in on standing up for the underdog. I’d much rather encounter those people when they become adults.

I know this may sound patronising. Near middle-aged man pats teenagers on the head for making a stand. But it’s perhaps influenced by thinking back to when I was a teenager. As an older Millennial, we were shaped by the cynicism and apathy of Gen X and the nihilistic and apolitical humour of the popular TV shows of our teenage years.

One of the things that’s clear is the role the “spectacle” can play in social and structural change. Incrementalism doesn’t do anything, structurally. Discursive frameworks – loosely speaking, the language that shapes social relations in a particular area – require disruption to change course. These frameworks are shaped by power, and there is always a question of who gets to define, and how. But ultimately, social change – good or bad – always starts with language.

That’s where protest can be so potent, even if it ultimately doesn’t change the underlying structures. And the great thing about watching teenagers fight for rights is that there’s no disingenuousness about it, they genuinely believe what they’re fighting for. There’s something so thrilling about seeing young people stand up for the underdog (and I’m not talking about young men holding tiki lamps; those guys are not the underdog). That unbridled energy can actually change the language, disrupt the narratives that are so dominant. Though, perhaps paradoxically, once you put aside the spectacle, actually effecting structural change requires graft and work – and yes, solidarity.

I do a disservice to the Millennials and Gen X. If anything, it’s more an indictment on my adolescent failings, than any sort of supportable stereotype of the generations around me. I didn’t wear a trench-coat in solidarity with the bullied kids, and to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about it until a mate mentioned it to me the other day. I became friends with many of those guys afterwards, and wonder, in hindsight, what I could have done for their time at school to have been better.

I have come to learn that being indifferent or hoping time will fix inequities is simply raising a white flag. Instead, we remember the protests. A colleague of mine was recounting being involved in the Springbok protests – and his descriptions were electric. I remember seeing the Gen X student protesters on the news, the ones occupying the universities. I went to the hīkoi against the foreshore and seabed legislation in 2004 to film it for my documentary film class, and learned through that incredible protest, how ignorant I’d been about the extent of Treaty breaches. Or, there were obviously the Iraq War protests in 2003. I remember walking over with a friend, and there were three of us from Law School there – the rest were at a free sausage sizzle. There’s something incredible about being in a protest. It’s an exhilarating feeling knowing that you’re not alone, that other people are standing with you. How many different voices can sound like one.

In 2004, my (now) close mate – who was involved in the trench coat protest and hauled up to the principal’s office – invited me to Parliament. A group of white supremacists were holding a rally, apparently to support “retaining the New Zealand flag” (though as far as I can recall, there was no movement to change the flag at that point, and those folk were mostly silent during the whole flag referendum period). If they intimidated a few folk on the way, well, tough luck. The rally was countered by a strong contingent of punks, anarchists and peaceniks. The kids who were picked on at high school. I could feel their solidarity as they stood up for people like me. They ended up chasing the white supremacists out of town, quite literally.

There’s something even more magical about teenagers making a stand. For many, fitting in and/or being invisible are high priorities. Teenagers are unlikely to fight for something unless they feel passionate about it. Like what happens after any protest, the Girls’ High students received flak on social media. There has been a lot of critical responses online to the protests more generally. Time and time again though, posterity and hindsight prove the kids right, no matter the dialogue at the time. Ultimately, if kids are fighting for underdogs, and you’re telling them they’re wrong or that there are other ways to do it, you’ve simply chosen the wrong side.

The Sunday Essay is supported by Creative New Zealand. Read more from series here.

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