Political activism is nothing new, but should we be more accepting of non-traditional platforms in order to engage wider audiences?
The Scottish referendum, finally complete, has been hugely controversial. It received news coverage from every possible angle and the events unfolding in the UK have been particularly keenly observed by countries with similar regional issues and contentions; Spain, for example.
But governments and news outlets have not been the only ones closely following events. From a less traditional platform and taking a rather explicit stance, prominent fashion designer Vivienne Westwood chose to debut her support for the independence movement at the 2014 London Fashion Week. She wore a Scottish flag across her shoulders, a ‘Yes’ badge on her blazer and proceeded to send her models down the catwalk wearing corresponding badges.
Using politics as an accessory is extremely problematic. It has the unfortunate potential to belittle the groups which the political issue relates, as well as oversimplifying issues. However, while some might choose to interpret the designer’s political campaigning both now and in the past as shameless self-promotion, it is undeniable that the visual nature of her efforts were both eye-catching and provocative. And if this type of display has any potential to engage the otherwise apolitical population, who have been prone to political apathy in the UK, then it should only be encouraged.
Another perhaps unlikely politicised group is the younger generation. In the Scottish referendum, over 100,000 of the 3.5 million people who turned out to the polls (an 84.15% turnout) were 16-17 year olds. The level of involvement demonstrated by young people throughout the process has led Alex Salmond and Ed Miliband, among others, to call for the voting age to be lowered. Young people’s activism and political awareness in both campaigns was a clear sign of their willingness to battle for their beliefs, attempt affect the views of others and be politically active with a view to long term change. Given the opportunity and the right subject matter, young people are more than ready to engage.
There are comments to be made about both campaigns and their respective political engagement during the referendum. Without encouragement directed particularly at young people, this may be an opportunity missed, not only by Westminster, but by political industries and campaigners as a whole to engage masses of potential activists to carry forward future movements in a positive, liberal way.
We are one of the most privileged nations in the world. But where campaigns, particularly regarding human rights, are often resigned to the fringes of politics and largely ignored by mainstream media, young people have the potential to champion these in a unique way. Governments might not want to add fuel to an activists fire, yet I would argue that wider and deeper levels of political engagement not only legitimise democracies but support positive civilian-government interactions. In other words, it’s a win-win situation.
In a political climate where freedom of speech is an ever-growing issue, with journalists and tourists alike under threat in certain regions, French tourist Hervé Gourdel only recently beheaded in Algeria, no level of political awareness or engagement is too high. As such, visual displays of protest, that challenge the status of political campaigns as fringe movements and carry them towards mainstream audiences, should be highly encouraged.
A symbol used by the ‘Free Al Jazeera Staff’ campaign, and more broadly as a global protest in favour of free speech, was black tape across the mouth. The idea of displaying this symbolism on catwalk models is incredibly provocative. People are interested in politics; the referendum is evidence enough. Now, the key is promotion and education, which the fashion industry or similar platforms can promote through their natural engagement with mainstream media.
I am not advocating the commodification of politics. Campaigns are not to be packaged, marketed and consumed (I still detest brand fashion – Coca Cola t-shirts, for example). Yet at a moment where political apathy in the UK is being challenged, it hardly seems sensible to reject those who are encouraging engagement with current affairs. The size of the fashion sector (to name just one unlikely platform), its international media exposure and its relevance to people of all ages – particularly the young – provides a showcase for activists, as well as the opportunity to engage many more. London Fashion week alone was attended by international press from 43 different countries.
Taken with a pinch of salt and on the assumption that viewers conduct their own research, on the basis of what they have seen the industry perform, the sector can give visual, high profile support to movements that may otherwise suffer marginal coverage. Young people and adults alike have shown in their thousands that politics matters to them. So let’s continue to broaden its base of accessibility. I don’t know where the line falls between commodification and justifiable political platforms, but I am also aware that ignorant political engagement is probably worse than apathy. It might just be worth a try.
By Kay Robinson
[Image Credit: Kyoshi Masamune]