Last night on ABC’s Q&A program, in response to the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, a group of students launched a loud and disruptive protest (if you missed it you can watch it here  Pyne had been grilled earlier in the night on his plans for higher education, university fee structures, youth reachout programs and he, in true Pyne form, had maintained a steadfast position on not committing to anything while at the same time threatening to make sweeping changes.  Arguably, while Pyne is one of the more senior members of Abbott’s cabinet, he is one of the least liked, and a protest against him and his projections for the future of education in Australia, was not surprising.

The students’ protests disrupted the program for a number of minutes and without the luxury of throwing to a commercial break, the host Tony Jones looked desperately to the producers to cut the feed. When the show resumed, the students had been removed, their voices quietened and the panel got on with the rest of the show.

This morning their protests made the mainstream media and their message and the way in which they delivered it has been robustly discussed. Now, whether or not you agree with what they said and how they said it, they achieved one thing, and that is to get people talking about education and putting these issues at the top of the government’s agenda. There is a long (and often bloody) history of student protesting, creating debate and agitating for change. For generations, the next great thinkers, the change makers and the future world leaders have (most of the time) started their journey at uni. The gulf between Left and Right, based on ideology and values often starts at uni. Opinions on issues that divide us and unite us such as the right to choose, marriage equality, and aboriginal voting rights, are often formed at uni.  We often get our first taste of politics at uni, of understanding that we have a voice and a right to use that voice to say “hey that’s not right!”

And, at the end of the day, that’s what the students did last night. They used their voices and whether you agree with them or not, they stood up for what they believe in and stood up for the rights of others who could not or choose not do the same. They chose a public forum to do this and one in which they knew they would get noticed.

In a perfect world, you shouldn’t need to stand up for your rights for in a perfect world these rights would not be compromised. But the world is very far from perfect. We are all born with the same inherent rights to freedom and equality and choice, but we need those amongst us to stand up and make others accountable for compromising and challenging those rights. We all have a voice and it is about our choice to use this voice.

It is often said that a journey starts with a single step. That your vote counts. That we can make a difference if we choose to.  Now I am not suggesting that we all take to the streets and march in protest (unless that’s what you choose to do!) but I am suggesting that in our own ways we stand up for what we passionately believe in. This may be as small as not using gender exclusive language or not making racist comments even in jest, or as big as striding up Bourke Street with a megaphone in hand passionately declaring your views on marriage equality. We are fortunate that we can, if we want, choose to use our voice and push for change and make the world a better place. This is what the students attempted to do last night, and even if their delivery was flawed, their motives were sound. 

When you don’t stand up for what you believe in, you experience cognitive dissonance, which is a term psychologists use for the mental stress or discomfort experienced when your beliefs are in conflict with your actions.  Sometimes we don’t have the courage to stand up and say what we really think, for fear of rejection, backlash, or not fitting in.  So if you can learn anything from this event, maybe the next time you are faced with a situation where you find yourself behaving in a way that is inconsistent with your values, have the courage to recognise why you are feeling uncomfortable, change your behaviour, and use your voice.

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