The power of modern protest ... writ large on a T-shirt

Today’s younger consumers assert their status through their visible values, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Elizabeth Warren, an American politician, provided the unwitting inspiration for a popular line of T-shirts.  Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
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Today’s younger consumers assert their status through their visible values

There’s an old thought experiment that asks if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It’s a riddle that raises important questions of observation, our knowledge of reality and whether something really is ever real.

Today, in the era of selfies and stream of consciousness social media feeds, we’re up against a whole new interpretation of the tree in the forest conundrum. I frame it like this: if you don’t take a picture of your experience and post it on social media, did you really do it?

Earlier this month, Democrat Elizabeth Warren stood up in the US Senate to protest the nomination of Jeff Sessions to the position of attorney general. To support her argument, she read out a letter from the late Coretta Scott King, who was an activist as well as the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. Her recently discovered letter contained a damning indictment of Mr Sessions’ alleged racism exhibited during riots in 1986. Senator Mitch McConnell intervened to stop Ms Warren from reading the letter. He later remarked: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

His comments that “nevertheless, she persisted” became an instant hit, co-opted by women to describe their daily struggles. As one post on Twitter explained, it’s a history of feminism. Another suggested that it should be the title of any future autobiography written by Ms Warren. Or a line of T-shirts.

That is exactly what Reebok produced within days. Their small training T-shirt, with the slogan “nevertheless, she persisted” was available soon after, sold for $20 (Dh74) with proceeds going to support the Women’s March. It has already sold out.

The retweeting of memes has become a recent trend within the wider phenomenon of clicktivism. It joins the practice of changing your Facebook icon or supporting a hashtag.

While many discount the power of the online protest, and urge keyboard warriors to get out onto the streets, they are not two separate phenomena.

Even the use of sarcastic and jovial memes has a vital role to play in consciousness raising and the drumming up of solidarity and enthusiasm. That it is done through iconography and clever wordplay is simply political campaigning catching up with our times.

In the 1960s and 1970s we saw the emergence of the T-shirt slogan, where the personal became political. And Reebok’s recent T-shirt is a more recent instalment.

These are just different ways of putting to use the public space we own, bypassing gatekeepers. Each tweet, icon or item of clothing adds to the support for a campaign, a form of grass roots people power.

But while social media may be (ostensibly) free of cost, the purchasers of the T-shirt are clearly willing to pay for others to know their politics and the fact they believe they are on the right side of history.

Conspicuous consumption for many decades has been the dominant mode of shopping – to show off how much money you have. How much gold can you wear? How bling is your car? How dope is your crib? There were pockets of consumers for whom the showcasing of wealth was more subtle, through quality, craftsmanship and only-in-the-know brands. But still, it was all about making your financial status known.

Today’s younger consumers assert their status through their visible values. Their ethics must be worn on their sleeves, literally. I rather like it. Why not have an opinion and be proud of it? And for women, who continue to suffer the erasure of their voices and opinions, to be able to walk down the street and make it known that you will continue to persist, despite all obstacles, from the holder of the highest status to the ordinary around you, sends a strong message.

Of course, the philosophical question of this era remains, if you don’t Instagram a picture of yourself doing it, did you really do anything worthy?

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of the books Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and Love in a Headscarf

On Twitter: @loveinheadscarf