New Zealand has a proud history of protest. As a nation, we're not backward about coming forward when it comes to the matters that mean the most to us. The Springbok Tour and the Māori Land Hikoi spring to mind immediately as prominent examples of our social consciousness, alongside the tireless work of the Kiwi suffragists. It's reassuring to know that, when our innate sense of fairness is thwarted, we actually do give a damn.
Some may perceive us as a somewhat apathetic bunch, preferring to leave well alone the majority of the time. Our "she'll be right" attitude is well known, and yet we've become something of a bastion of progressiveness, becoming the first nation in which women could vote, the vanguard of the anti-nuclear movement and one of the few countries worldwide to provide legal protections to sex workers. In some ways, we're the unlikeliest of radicals… almost like a group of retirees on holiday who stumbled into the middle of a demonstration and emerged with dreadlocks and banners. It's difficult to get your head around, but here we are.
It's been a while, however, since we managed to lather ourselves into a proper froth. The Foreshore and Seabed Hikoi was probably the last major protest that gripped the nation, and that was nearly 15 years ago. Yet, in the past year or so, I've noticed a palpable shift. Activism is in the air again, and it's not going anywhere.
At first I wondered if it was only me, ensconced as I supposedly am in my idealistic millennial progressive bubble. Activism is obviously always happening, whether it's reported on or not. Was I, though wishful thinking, picking up on a slight increase in media coverage and turning it into something it wasn't?
But then I saw the millions of people marching around the globe for the Women's March last year, the hordes of people talking about gun violence in the United States, pay equity, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the global #MeToo and Time's Up movements and the like, and realised that something much bigger is happening. Activism is having a moment globally, and we're just one small part of it.
What's driving it? Have we reached a point where our dissatisfaction with the status quo has finally erupted? Are we witnessing generational change? Has the advent of social media made organising easier?
Likely, it's a mixture of all of these factors, alongside our scathingly maligned "PC culture". I tend to roll my eyes when someone says the term "PC". To me, so-called political correctness is simply a way to make kindness and compassion sound like bad things, and to give those who are too lazy to consider how their behaviour may impact upon others a free pass.
Recently the "PC" slur has morphed into another mind-boggling concept; that of "virtue-signalling" – an epithet thrown at someone who seemingly makes an effort to be a good person. While the idea that being good is somehow worthy of scorn makes little sense to me, the mere fact that a certain subset of people are moaning about it is indicative of the way in which our world has become a more socially conscious place. We're more aware of things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and the like, and while we have a long way to go to eradicate all of these things, a climate of awareness is becoming more pervasive.
One example can be seen in the rejuvenation of te reo Māori. I've begun to wonder whether we're in the early stages of a second Māori renaissance, with reo classes around the country full to bursting with long wait lists. Sure, the dissenting dinosaurs have galumphed through the time warp to be expertly savaged by the likes of Kim Hill, but the march of change has gathered powerful momentum.
Everywhere you turn, awareness is slowly morphing into action. Whether the issue is plastic bag use or homelessness, people power is kicking in to agitate for change. For movements like #MeToo and Time's Up – and the feminist movement more broadly – a boiling point has been reached. For too long, women have been aware of sexism, with the vast majority having encountered it in one way or another, but it took an outpouring of solidarity to expose the scope of the problem.
Both International Women's Day and the launch of the celebrations for the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand took place this week, and activism featured prominently during both. It's heartening to see the conversation around women move away from simply highlighting inspirational figures to actually addressing the problems that are holding women as a group back.
In a world that is increasingly fake, we seem to have reached a point where we don't want window dressing anymore. We don't want a false gloss coating ugly problems. We want authenticity and accountability. Things that would've previously been swept under the rug are now being held up to the light for all to see plainly. It must be terrifying to be a predator or a harasser in this climate. Good.
Somehow I sense that this is only the beginning. We've awoken, and we want change. Watch this space.