The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Youth activism

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 8 July 2021, 07:52 Last update: about 4 months ago

In Malta’s public sphere it is rather common to see young people being active in various areas, expressing dissent toward economic, social, and environmental policies and practices. When analysing such trends, it is important to look into which issues characterise youth activism, who is involved, and how activism takes place.

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In recent years, the environment has regularly featured as a main identifier in youth activism in Malta. Issues revolving around the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, migration, and party politics have also been high on the agenda of youth activists. At the same time, ‘new’ issues are featuring more prominently in the news cycle: such as issues related to gender identity and reproductive rights.

Youth activists who tend to capture most media attention are those active in social movement organisations and NGOs, and those who are active in political parties. Some individuals also make a name for themselves on their own steam, and become relative media celebrities. At the same time, there are also many less visible youths who are active within civil society, not in relation to protest or specific grievances and demands, but in terms of personal identity formation and community participation. A rather obvious example is the youth involved in band clubs, but there are other areas in the community characterised by voluntary work by the youth.

Consequently, various repertoires of activism are carried out by the youth. The most immediately visible form of action is the protest, whether in form of demonstration, press conferences, symbolic actions or more radical methods. Such physical forms of activism often interact with digital activism, which ranges from mass-media coverage of protest to 5-minute ‘clicktivism’ where, for example, one may sign an online petition or share a viral protest meme. In turn, physical and digital activism may complement each other: Physical protest requires media attention if it is going to have any semblance of public impact. Sometimes digital activism may snowball into physical protest. Within this media sphere, activists can be both consumers and producers of the media, especially since the proliferation of social media tools, such as Facebook. This can act as an incentive for activists to be creative in their activism but could also straitjacket activism into what makes the news headlines, at times putting style before substance.

Yet, activism can also comprise less ‘spectacular’ forms of action within its backstage. These may include debating policy, networking, helping others, and constructing personal and social identity.

Contextual factors are important in the analysis of youth activism in Malta. For example, Malta joined the EU in 2004, meaning that for many young people, being a part of this bloc is what they have known since their childhood. In this regard, Malta has a low degree of Euroscepticism, and being part of the EU is an important characteristic of youth identity and aspirations.

Following Malta’s EU accession, some activist issues remained high on the agenda, with the environment being the most visible. Youth activism related to major institutions such as political parties and the Church has also kept its place in Maltese society.

At the same time, new waves of protest emerged, ranging from those demanding the extension of civil rights, from divorce to LGBTIQ and beyond, to those related to migration and the ramifications of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

In turn, such activism could have been influenced by both internal and external factors. The former includes increased educational opportunities, increased opportunity to articulate grievances, more resources for youth to express themselves, individualisation, specific events, and Malta’s general democratic framework.

External factors could also have influenced youth activism in Malta. For example, the ‘soft power’ of the EU in terms of transmission of values, norms, aspirations and grievances, a more global media-sphere, other activism around the world, activist influencers, and the interpretation of global phenomena such as climate change and migration.

Within the Maltese context, it is important to keep in mind that as a small island state, politics is hyper-personalised, where people experience both physical and social proximity and where many tend to wear multiple hats. Hence, for example, one might be close to a particular NGO and active within a political party at the same time. One may also be a member of more than one organisation, and one may have close ties with various social institutions ranging from the media to the church, to party politics. Networks in Maltese society are not only formed by the political, economic, and cultural elites, but also by other groups and cohorts, including its youth. Such networks may help explain the coverage obtained by certain organisations as well as the coalitions (or lack of them) in various issues.

Finally, in the analysis of youth activism, let us not forget the elephant in the room. Protest and activism may be the focus of media coverage and scholarly study – I for one carry out sociological research of protest and politics – but let us not forget the silent majorities of youth who are not holding banners when trees are chopped, even if some or many may sympathise with the cause.

Let us recognise that many youth are busy playing and networking with their friends on their game consoles, involved in areas such as sports and culture, or concerned with lifestyle trends such as shopping. As citizens, the youth can be main protagonists for social change (with the vote-16 reform being a recent case in point), where they may express both their  rights and responsibilities towards society.  Yet youth are also consumers, building their own identity whilst reproducing various elements of society. In any case, youth are social protagonists.

 

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

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