Essential dissent

Graham Willett, University of Melbourne

Sean Scalmer Dissent Events: Protest, The Media and the Political Climate in Australia UNSW Press, 2002, (260pp.) ISBN 0-86840-651-1 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Do social movements work? It seems like an obvious question and in light of the outpouring of research and analysis over the past thirty or forty years on social movements and social movement activism, one could be forgiven for thinking that the question had long since been settled. Or, failing that, had at least resolved itself into a war of position between competing theories.

And yet, not. Sydney Tarrow, doyen of social movement researchers, remarked as long ago as 1989 that ‘until recently, it was difficult to find much in the literature regarding the success of social movements in bringing about social or policy change!’ The ‘until now’ has an optimistic ring about it that seems unwarranted. In fact, things have not improved all that much since then. This is odd, isn’t it? After all, if social movement theory and analysis has any real point, it ought—at least in part—to be about whether all those thousands of people engaged in the vast array of activities that constitute social movements (hundreds of thousands on a world scale) are wasting their time or not.

Even from an analytic point of view, it seems somewhat unfortunate that academics have devoted so much time and thought to how social movements arise, how they are constituted and how they operate, and yet neglected the obvious corollary question: did they cause the changes we have observed in the world, or not?

For the most part, those of us engaged in this area of research have been inclined to rely on impression, anecdote and hunch. The occasional wild assertion is not unheard of. But there has also been a certain sleight of hand along the lines of the following: movements exist which demand certain changes, change along these lines has taken place (to a greater or lesser extent to be sure), therefore the activities of the movements have caused the changes. It’s kind of like the smoking/lung cancer connection; all corollary, very little causal mechanism.

Sean Scalmer’s Dissent Events is important to social movement analysis for two reasons. In the first place, it actually contributes to our understanding of the effectiveness of movements. And, secondly, in doing this, it demonstrates what it is that we have been doing wrong.

Scalmer’s concern is with a particular activity which he calls the ‘political gimmick’. The gimmick is an action, often illegal, often involving small numbers of people, but always scandalous, outrageous, intended to shock and to draw attention (most commonly from the media). Think draft card burning, the Freedom Ride, sit-ins and die-ins, tearing up the Floral Clock, or, more recently, lip-sewing.

The choice of term is unfortunate. It suggests something trivial, which is exactly—as Scalmer demonstrates—what it is not. On the contrary, he argues that gimmicks are ‘at the root of democratic advance, social movement mobilisation and theoretic renewal’ (p. 176). The gimmick opens up new spaces in which to act: churches, parliaments, the streets become legitimate sites of protest. It brings new issues onto the public agenda or restores to prominence fading ones. It draws more and more people into activity around more and more questions—‘an exhilarating chase across social space, as radical actors joyously opened up new issues’ (p. 80). It stakes out new limits against which more moderate and institutionalised activists are measured and found wanting, even by themselves, forcing them to follow hastily after. The mechanisms by which debates and issues are transformed—and the role of the gimmick in this process—have never been clearer.

No one interested in the history of political activism in Australia can afford to overlook this book.

But it is the way that Dissent Events works that matters here, too. In a series of meticulous case studies, Scalmer argues his claims. Comparing the Egon Kisch stunt of 1934 (where a prominent European anti-fascist activist jumped overboard to draw attention to the efforts of the Australian government to deny him entry for a speaking tour) with the draft card burning of 1966, he alerts us to the fact that the first—although it entered into Australian political folklore—had no lasting impact. The latter launched a movement that changed everything. Why? The prevailing political, social and cultural climate in each case is very different, to be sure. But that alone explains very little. What we also need to know is how is it that US models of activism (the draft card burning, the Freedom Ride of Aboriginal activists and their supporters who toured the towns of rural NSW to draw attention to the extent of racist practices there) were imported, translated and applied here. Scalmer tell us. How is it that Arena magazine went from conventional Marxist analysis to flagship of the New Left in Australia in the space of a few short years? Scalmer tells us. What can the early years of Hansonism tell us about political activism in our time? Again, Scalmer tells us.

On their own, the studies that Dissent Events offers are impressive. No one interested in the history of political activism in Australia can afford to overlook this book. But, they are models, too, on how other researchers have to do their work. And, frankly, it is intimidating. Scalmer counts and measures in meticulous detail: to track the rise of the gimmick, for example, he (and I hope he had a team of research assistants here), identified, catalogued and coded 3500 political events reported in the Sydney Morning Herald from 1965 to 1971. Examination of the research revealed a very much more uneven pattern in the rise of political activity than many of us would have expected. It revealed, too, the extent to which, and the ways in which, more confrontational forms of activity replaced less confrontational forms. The findings are invaluable—but the work involved is daunting. Similarly, his analysis of the political shifts in Arena over the course of the second half of the 1960s, is a result of detailed content analysis that would surely make lesser hearts quail.

And yet, the results speak loudly. Without this work, we will never be able to be sure that what we think is happening has been happening—and our histories and analyses will always remain partial, anecdotal, unreliable. Which is where my earlier critique of social movement theory came in.

There remains one overwhelming problem, though. Even if we become increasingly confident that our reporting of movement activity and movement ideas are more accurate than they were, there remains the problem of audience. What do the shocked authorities, the scandalised public think and/or do in response to these new activities, new issues, new demands? How and why does opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription, to the criminalisation of homosexual acts, to the destruction of the environment (to take the issues wider than Scalmer does) develop? What is the connection between the movement and society?

I suspect that we are still a ways from cracking this particular problem, though works like the Tipping Point (Gladwell, 2000), with its sociology of fads and fashions will help; as, I suspect, will academic research into the world of ‘viral marketing’ (the use of innovators and early adopters to shape the market). But if we are to venture into these realms, we will need to take the findings—and the methods—of Dissent Events as essential baggage.


Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things An Make a Big Difference, Little, Brown and Co, London, 2000.

Graham Willett is author of Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2000).

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