Good comedy is supposed to prompt reflection on privilege and power structures, bringing to light the unsaid. It’s supposed to serve as a fuse-breaker for conversation about things we take for granted, things that we don’t question about the culture and society we’re deeply imbedded in.
Baby boomers had stand-up. Gen X got the Netflix specials. Millennials made memes, and the Zoomers are reinventing humour altogether with the likes of TicTok.
Each generation has inspected the world around us, declared what wasn’t good enough, employed cultural change through media, education, collective action and a few hard-hitting jokes in order to move the goalposts on what is politically possible.
Despite that requisite fluidity to facilitate ongoing social change, somehow, one fundamental part of the equation has remained relatively stable.
What do you think of when you think of a politician? Genuinely, take a second and reflect on that.
When I ask people, the first image that comes to mind is inevitably an older dude in a suit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so please hold fire from sending me a grumpy email. The reason this image comes to mind is because it is a stereotype, which is informed by history, which shows us for a very long time, our politics has been run by older dudes in suits.
My experiences in parliament, and before that, in a local election campaign, have taught me that there are actually some positives to fitting into a stereotype – particularly if it’s the stereotype about who wields power. If you fall outside of the stereotype, there’s an unconscious social expectation to justify, validate and legitimise your attempt for office in a way that doesn’t apply to those who fit the bill.
I personally think anybody who runs for office shouldn’t bank on any assumptions, particularly those founded on stereotypes which predispose them to subconscious “natural leader” status. Everybody should have to prove themselves.
Which is why I think it was perfectly acceptable to have been grilled by numerous New Zealanders on my “life experience”. I just wish such a critical lense was run over everyone. Life experience is not some mystical juju you collect as you age; more years on earth doesn’t necessarily equate to greater wisdom.
Wisdom – that being the skillset of a critical mind and solid judgment – comes from consistently exposing oneself to new and novel situations, in turn developing greater understanding of the world, those in it and how to solve evolving problems. When you close yourself off to new ways of looking at things; when you become conservative in mind – that being, a preference to shut down conversation and the potential for progress associated – you become intrinsically less likely to hold the requisite open, critical and creative ability to tackle unprecedented, evolving socio-political challenges.
Doing what we’ve always done will get us what we’ve always got. What we’ve got over the past few decades of governance, across the world, is an economic system that exploits both people and our planet. It just happens that the resulting devastating inequality and climate crises are only starting to be really and truly felt.
Every single person who fits the bill of a stereotypical politicians didn’t do that, but those who have made historical decisions as those stereotypical politicians, who are responsible for the cultural legacy of that stereotype, did. Of course, among them were reformists who pushed society forward; who brought us suffrage and civil rights and marriage equality. Those progressives were originally on the fringes, being shouted back and at the worst of times, subject to extreme violence. But they kept fighting, and they won.
Our history has brought us to where we are today. It is filled with a whole lot of good, and a whole lot of bad. It should not be sanitised.
All of this is why it feels so desperately bewildering that the thing which made international headlines, amidst Aotearoa New Zealand’s debate on a law to bend down carbon emissions and do our bit to keep our planet below the 1.5 degrees of warming required to keep life anywhere close to how we know it, was an innocuous two-word meme.
My “Okay boomer” comment in parliament was off-the-cuff, albeit symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations set to inherit ever-amplifying problems in an ever-diminishing window of time. It was a response – as is par-for-course – to a barrage of heckling in a Parliamentary Chamber that at present turns far too many regular folks off from engaging in politics.
When regular folks are turned off, the status quo has an excuse to continue with business as usual. In order for democracy to work for all of us, it must look like all of us.
Memes and all.
Chlöe Swarbrick is a MP for the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.
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