To plank, or not to plank

Posted on October 4, 2011


In Britain, students marched in protest. In the Philippines they planked. Now an anti-planking bill is before the Philippine Congress and has prompted an international internet storm of ridicule and criticism. What started out as a Facebook craze between friends has transmuted into a form of gesture politics or student protest.

What is interesting, though, are the discourses around it. Some see it as an irresponsible extension of the Facebook craze – ‘You got a body, you got a Plank’ – in which a person lay stiffly in unusual places, got a friend to take a photo and uploaded these on their Facebook page. On the face of it, that sounds like harmless fun or a bit silly but hardly worth making a law against. I would think there are more urgent matters. But earlier this year an Australian was killed when he fell to his death. So, hardly surprising, proposers of the Philippines bill claim it sets out to protect students who presumably are not capable of acting responsibly. Interesting though that Australia hasn’t proposed an equivalent law to ‘protect’ students despite the death there.

Others claim planking is racist, with echoes of the organization of slave ships and those that use it should ‘educate’ themselves. But as with any discourse – and gesture is a form of it – context is everything. I remember years ago in the 1980s, black South Africans lying down stiffly in roads in protest. The big advantage is that, when done properly, the body becomes a ‘dead weight’ and very difficult for the police to move. But is it credible to claim that black South Africans campaigning against apartheid were being racist or ignorant?

Some on Global Voices say the bill is an attempt to curb legitimate freedom of expression. The planking protests in the Philippines who attracted growing numbers of students. At first, they protested against education cuts (sound familiar?). Then a couple of weeks ago thousands planked in support of a driver protest at oil price rises bringing traffic in Manila to a standstill. A Facebook group, ‘Plank! For a Cause’ was created to encourage the sharing of photos that ‘dramatize the militancy and creativity of youth’. There is some credibility to this argument. The Bill singles out student protestors in its definition of planking and views it as a political act and not a Facebook craze among friends.

Whatever the discourse used, what is interesting is the growth in student activism around the world and the way in which otherwise innocuous cultural expressions in one context are translated into new forms of protest in another.