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What we mean when we talk about apathy

Young people are apathetic. This is an irrefutable fact, isn’t it? The accusation of apathy has become the most potent mechanism through which the political class can avoid legitimizing itself to the public; in its concision, its ambiguity, and its flexibility the word has become a rhetorical smoke-screen; a meaningless veil that the LibLabCons are happy to wear.

We might normally chuck in an Oxford dictionary definition here, but that definition has little to do with what politicians and the media are talking about when they talk about ‘apathy’. More interesting is the sentence example that invariably follows the definition: “Widespread apathy amongst students”

This is the issue. Apathy has become the property of the young alone. In recent years, young people in the UK have reached the voting age in a climate of overwhelming disparagement. The tendency to see young people as technologically saturated apathetes with no desire for political involvement is not marginal- it’s everywhere; media, politics, education. More worryingly, it has permeated public opinion and it’s starting to stick.

Ironically, those who level the accusations of apathy against a generation that has few opportunities to fruitfully engage in (let alone critique) the mechanisms of democracy, fail to see that the accusation may well breed the sentiment.

Russell Brand’s renewed encroachments this year on the pre-scribed borders of political debate are a contentious point. Yet, young people are engaging with the information he puts forward and the questions he raises. Even if it is to tell him to do one. Of course we can sweep this under the proverbial carpet (as the media have) with the facile claim that young people are only tuning into The Trews because of his Christ-esque appearance, or because secretly they kind of liked Big Brother’s Big Mouth, or easier still because they were on YouTube looking for a video of the Ice Bucket Challenge, but this doesn’t negate the fact that young people are engaging. This is political engagement, only it’s happening outside of the contracted parameters.

Perhaps the most salient point that Brand’s activism has brought to the fore is that as a society we seem incapable of distinguishing between the terms apathy and disillusion.

Why do we presume that the person who votes is not apathetic? They go to the ballot and mark their box, they are ‘engaging’ in the democratic process and thus they cannot be apathetic, right? Yet this does not necessarily substantiate the existence of any kind of genuine interest, concern or enthusiasm for the political process amongst these voters.

In this sense I agree with Brand. Turning up to the ballot without concern for your vote is more dangerous to representative democracy than staying at home. The person who stays home out of disillusionment may be truly ‘concerned’.

Westminster has attempted to paper over its failure to engage a disillusioned population on the ‘young apathetes’ plague. It is working for now. Scape-goating the youth is a good short-term policy but ultimately it will cost the established political structure, because this Internet generation is not as apathetic as politicians and the media would have us believe. New channels for expression are evolving and it is young people who are literate and native to these mediums. Even Rupert Murdoch has admitted that much.

Earlier I said that the accusation of apathy may well breed the sentiment itself, but it may also breed another sentiment, the proactive sentiment that is fundamental for change. Here’s hoping anyway.

 

Matthew Riordan

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