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When community becomes real

By Luke Johnson - posted Monday, 22 December 2014

In times of tragedy people band together and imaginary communities give way to real ones. Whether it's converging to lay flowers at the site of an innocent loss of life, re-Tweeting a hash tag, or riding the train with a group of strangers (à la Malcolm Turnbull), it's at such moments that the community spirit we have forced upon us time and again (usually by politicians attempting to leverage their own popularity) becomes wholly and uncontrollably manifest.

The spontaneity and unexpectedness of these assemblies, which occur without direction or design, can dwarf the carefully measured assurances of solidarity offered by even the most well-respected and well-intentioned leaders.

Consider the formal responses to Monday's hostage siege in Martin Place, which by and large were quite predictable in their content and delivery. Premier Mike Baird made his address to the people of New South Wales, urging them to 'come together like never before, [since] we are stronger together.' Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke to a broader, national community, insisting that '[e]very Australian is obliged to treat other Australians, every other Australian with respect.' WhileArchbishop Anthony Fisher used his homily to link the heroic actions of hostages Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson to altruistic death of Jesus Christ, reminding parishioners 'that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for each other'. In each of these cases, the invocation of community stands as a preconfigured concept and even, perhaps, an imposed one.


Now consider the unmediated demonstration of communion driving the "I'll ride with you" hashtag. Here we have a near perfect example of what really binds us together as human beings: our sense of belonging. And I don't mean our belonging to a particular state, or nation or religion, but to each other. With four simple words, the anonymous mass of Twitter users have trumped every figurehead in the country. They have given form to what is often nothing more than an abstract idea. They have produced "community" at the most important of times and in the most contemporary of ways, binding themselves together under a credo no more complex than the desire to be bound together. Simply, they came together as a community because community is what was called for, what was needed.

I don't present this as a criticism of those leaders whom we more or less expect to frame their responses within traditional pre-existing narratives of state/religious/ethnic harmony, either; but rather as a celebration of the fact that there are still times when human emotion can rise above obtuse sentimentality and political rhetoric to regain all of its lost vigour. On such occasions, it's hard not to feel moved.

Critics of the hashtag have taken exception with this idea. I suppose you can see where they're coming from. 'Hard-hitting journalist' Miranda Devine (her words, not mine) sees the outpouring as 'meaningless and narcissistic'. According to her, the real victims of the siege – the hostages – are being replaced by imaginary victims: Muslim women apparently too afraid to ride public transport. And what's worse, it isn't even being done for the sake of these imaginary victims, but rather for the sake of fulfilling leftist, self-aggrandising fantasies.

This way of thinking seems needlessly cynical to me. And a little off the mark too. It's true that at the most literal level #illridewithyou is more or less meaningless – but no more so than Mike Baird promising the families and friends of the hostages that 'everyone in NSW stands beside you.' In both cases, it's not the words themselves that are especially important, but the sentiment underpinning the very compulsion to speak in the first place – or Tweet, as the case may be.

Whether it began as one woman's 'imagined brush with islamaphobia' (again, Devine's words not mine) or an earnest attempt to reach out to another human being in a time of uncertainty, #illridewithyou quickly became something wholly and importantly communal. The Twittersphere morphed into an almost physical site, where those who were feeling the pull of solidarity came to congregate. They were drawn together not by narcissism, as the critics would have it, but by the need to feel close other human beings. It wasn't leftist or rightist; it was human. And I'm not sure this is anything to feel cynical about.

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About the Author

Luke Johnson lectures in the arts and humanities at the University of Technology, Sydney, and has written for the The Age and The Drum.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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