The antidote to extremism

Millennials are looked down on as the generation that will accomplish nothing. Actually, we are moving (quietly) and trying to change the world, using anything from Noam Chomsky’s teachings to Twitter.

They said that we are too focused on our avocado brunches to buy a house. That we are the most apathetic generation, that we are glued to the screen of our smartphone. In short, that we want too much but do too little. Our answer is, obviously, that there’s nothing wrong with us – it’s just the world we’ve been given that’s got problems. House prices have skyrocketed in the past decade; the job market now requires a 20-year-old to have around thirty years of experience – or be doomed to years of unpaid internships before landing their first job.

Yet another burning problem of the late 2010s is affecting the way we live: extremism.

The question we should be asking isn’t what’s wrong with millennials. The real question is: how are we going to fix these problems?

Hello world, what’s wrong with you?

The last 18 months have seen a surprising change of scenery in Europe and the US. If, before June 2016, we thought that the West was walking towards a gradually more liberal, open-minded society, we woke up on the morning of the 24th with a strange feeling in our guts. That feeling didn’t go away as the weeks passed. As Trump was elected, then, as Marie Le Pen came extremely close to becoming the French president, the feeling was still there.

We witnessed similar events this year, in Germany and Austria: the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gained seats in the September elections; Austria voted for a nationalist party tough on immigration.

“I don’t think we are going fast enough in the direction I wish the world would go,” activist Boubacar Dembele told me. “Unfortunately, in many aspects, western societies have started to undo a lot of the good that had been achieved during the past few decades, and in effect, going back in time.”

There’s a new kind of argument that’s crept up into homes and everyday life. It is now acceptable to say that migrants are “poison”, as the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán did last year, and as too many ordinary people do.

Seeing some light at the end of the tunnel

But just as things can’t seem to get any better, there is a new wave of civil counteraction that’s moving ordinary people across the world. Last month, speaking in Canada, the feminist Gloria Steinem said that the Trump presidency inspired a level of activism that she had never seen before: people are starting to look around and move, and Londoners surely don’t want to be left behind.

Activism is centuries old, and it defined the history of the Sixties and Seventies; it even helped put an end to the Vietnam war. What is different today, though, is the way young people do activism.

The 2016 Millennial Impact Report shows that more than half of the millennials surveyed tend to consider themselves as activists – although this does not necessarily mean that they are actively engaged in campaigns or causes. It does show, though, that more millennials think of activism as an ‘everyday’ choice rather than a radical one. Boubacar Dembele, of the activist group DiEM25, told me: “I think we are all activists at various degrees.” But he also said that, since the last US elections, he has seen a change. “I don’t have any numbers to back up what I say, but if Twitter is anything to go by, a lot of people seem to have discovered that the separation between their political life and their everyday life has always been an illusion.” And the Report seems to confirm that.

Dembele is importing a branch of the European activist group DiEM25 to the United Kingdom. “I attended its launch as a curious observer and left as an activist,” he told me. The first meetup he is organising will take place later this month, at the Barbican, with more to follow. The group defines itself as a “pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats” and it fights for democracy and the survival of the European Union. It is coordinated by intellectuals and politicians like Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis and Brian Eno – but most of its members are grassroots activists just like Dembele.

Hashtag activism

Being socially and politically active and involved has become so common thanks to social media, too, to the point that many protests were characterised by the hashtag they were referred with on Twitter: the term #BlackLivesMatter sounds a lot more familiar than “the killing of Trayvon Martin” (the event that sparkled the protests). Similarly, #Occupy is a hashtag that united people from that protested for the same cause all over the world.

There’s a flip side of the coin: social media are good at bringing people together, but are they enough of a link to keep these people active? Malcolm Gladwell, a The New Yorker journalist, says no. And it is true that at the core of activism is still physical interaction between humans (“Activism for me is a sense of community,” Dembele says) – but in today’s age, it is worth to use all tools that we have available.

“Activism is a mean to build a more selfless, inclusive and fairer society is fuelled by hope, and is therefore a natural counterweight to anything fuelled by fear,” Dembele said, “since it naturally leads to a more selfish, xenophobic and unequal society.” This is also the main point of the manifesto of DiEM25: that people need to come together, despite their different opinions, to prevent the spread of extremism. It says: “We must act quickly, before the EU disintegrates.”

We might not be able to buy a house and we might spend too much time on our smartphones, but the money we don’t save and hours we use our phones are not always spent frivolously. From our rooms in rented flats, with our social media and hashtags, we are also rising our voices against a common enemy.


Words: Silvia Tadiello | Subbing: Pamela Machado

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