Up in Queensland at the moment, Australia is hosting the 2018 Commonwealth Games (GC2018). We are welcoming more than 6,600 athletes and team officials from 71 Commonwealth nations and territories to the Gold Coast and event cities Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville, to share in the celebration of sport, entertainment and culture. And this has become the latest focal point of the culture wars that exist in Australia. To give a very short background, from 1788–1850 was the early colonial period of Australia’s history, from the arrival in 1788 of the First Fleet of British ships at Sydney, New South Wales, who established the penal colony, the scientific exploration of the continent and later, establishment of other Australian colonies and the beginnings of a so called representative democratic government. European colonisation would have a devastating effect on the pre-existing population of Indigenous Australians, not only in terms of physical and cultural genocidal practices, but through legislative and cultural policies. There is a debate that continues in the 21st century as to whether the colonisation process represented settlement, invasion, or a mixture of both.
Interpretations of Aboriginal history became part of the wider political debate during the tenure of the Coalition government from 1996–2007, with the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard publicly championing the ‘white blindfold view’ (rather than the ‘black armband view’) of Australia. This debate extended into a controversy over the way history was presented in the National Museum of Australia and in high school history curricula. It also migrated into the general Australian media, with regular opinion pieces being published in major news outlets such as The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Bringing it home to the GC2018 has become the latest focal point of the cultural wars with a large Indigenous presence during the opening ceremony. Some had issues that pertained to the continuous discrimination of Indigenous people being invisabilised by token celebration of Indigenous culture that was broadcast internationally. Rightwing non-Indigenous politicians and commentators took exception to what they perceived as too heavy an Indigenous focus. Leader of the One Nation party, Pauline Hanson, described the 20 minutes dedicated to celebrating Australia’s Indigenous heritage as “absolutely disgusting”. This followed comments by conservative radio jock Alan Jones’ on Thursday morning in which he tweeted that the ceremony was a “disgrace” and later, while on air, described the Indigenous segments as “rubbish and an insult”. Simultaneously. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are staging a convergence during the Games to raise awareness about the issues of Genocide, Sovereignty and Treaty using the meme “Stolenwealth Games”
A meme is like a piece of cultural DNA that evolves as it passes from person to person. The term is derived from the ancient Greek word mimema, meaning, “something imitated.” Playing on the word “gene,” Richard Dawkins coined the term as a way of understanding how cultural practices spread. A meme is any unit of culture that has spread beyond its creator — buzz words, catchy melodies, fashion trends, ideas, rituals, iconic images, and so on. It’s like a viral frame that allows a story to spread, carrying a certain worldview with it. In this case, the Stolenwealth meme is a story highlighting Australian issues of genocide, sovereignty and treaty, it is being used to help change the Australian story of Indigenous peoples. The official Stolenwealth logo is hijacking the “Commonwealth” word along with the iconic koala (which has been traditionally used in Australian Commonwealth and Olympic Games as a mascot) to imitate and replicate into our cultural awareness a greater story that the one we are most familiar with.
Although the term may be relatively new, memes have always been used by social movements to spread stories of liberation and change, from ‘she’ll be right mate!’ to ‘Black is Beautiful’. The incredible spread of Occupy Wall Street’s meme we are the 99% has shown not only how a good meme can spread a powerful social change message but also how a shared meme can serve as an organising tool.
Effective memes are memorable, easy to spread and “sticky.” In other words they linger in our consciousness, connect with our existing thinking and are easily passed on through our communications and actions. A meme that embodies a message and spreads rapidly can dramatically increase the impact of an action or campaign.
A potent meme alone will not win a campaign or trigger systemic change. The right meme can, however, help people-powered organising be exponentially more effective and influential by helping a message, an idea, or a rallying cry go viral, and personally, I think the Stolenwealth games meme is a pretty good one.
The term ‘Meme’ was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The term was first connected to social change strategies by Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine.