Here we go again…
To set the mood for the impending election, we are being reminded, once again, that the youth of today is apathetic when it comes to politics. It’s part and parcel of the old tradition of electoral politics. As timely as the cries about the infamous “War On Christmas” come November.
And it’s not the exclusive purview of Britain either. Most countries in the world where there’s even the pretence of democracy and elections seem to suffer from a case of “apathetic youth”. And of course, the best way to fight back this apathy is to blame its victims for it. How dare the young not care about politics! People have (changes to deep voice with echo effects) died (voice changes back) for their right to vote… They have actually (dramatic voice on) died (dramatic voice off)… What everyone seems to forget is that people fought for the right to vote when voting actually made a difference. Now it doesn’t. For reference, see the last two terms of the Labour government.
But let’s focus on this “apathy”. It’s difficult to make the youth apathetic since this is, traditionally, the time in people’s lives when they are most rebellious and hopeful that change is possible. Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, and since it has happened we might as well try to figure out how.
Case 1. I’m thirteen and entering high school for the very first time. The teacher for Civic Education asks us for ideas on how we could improve the working of our high school. Goody, you might think. I was already cynical by then and so, unlike everyone else, I suggested what I thought was the simplest and easiest change I could think of: the starting time of PE. Once a week we would finish morning classes at a quarter to one, but had to get to the PE gymnasium by two o’clock. We had to run to the bus stop and catch a bus to the next town (said bus being paid with our own money, of course) and then get a bollocking for being late. You know what my teacher said? That the timetable was already set for the year and there was nothing that could be done about it. Point taken.
Case 2. Second year of University. Shortly after the year starts classes are supposed to assign two delegates who will take complains and suggestions to members of staff in one big meeting. One of the issues raised that year was the blackboard in our maths lecture room, approximately the size of a stamp post, as one lecturer charmingly put it. Can you imagine solving big, bulky, long and tedious equations in a teeny, tiny blackboard? After the meeting I talk to my delegate, who tells me that the issue was discussed at length (though apparently it was more about the merits of the old technique of using a blackboard versus the modern approach of using projectors). In the end, nothing was done. We didn’t get a bigger blackboard, and we weren’t assigned a different lecture room.
Case 3. Last year of University. For some bizarre reason, the location of the lecture rooms seemed to have been assigned totally at random and, at the same time, purposefully designed to cover the whole campus. This time the fricking lecturer complained about it. In came the second term and things only got worse. Not only were our lectures taking place anywhere and everywhere, but the exact location of the coming lecture was a well guarded secret until the very last minute, sometimes guarded even afterwards. I couldn’t believe it. Here I am, I would say to myself, on my last year at university and I’m running around not knowing where my lecture room is like a fresh student on her first week.
What do we learn from this? That change doesn’t happen. Any change, no matter how small, is, by definition, too big to take place. What’s the excuse? Shortage of money? Was my high school short of time? Was my University short of blackboards or lecture rooms? No. But they both were short of power. Power has become so centralized that it’s impossible now, even for large swathes of society, to effect any change. Very few people control almost everything, while the rest of us control practically nothing.
But while power has been gathering into fewer and fewer hands, something very peculiar has been going on. We are being told left, right and centre that “our opinion matters”; “Your call is important to us”; “If you have any suggestions…”. Every self respecting business has a complaint form ready to be filled out or a suggestion box ready to be filled in. There are polls asking every opinion anyone has ever had about almost anything. We are constantly being invited to take part in some survey to improve some service or other. At the end of every University term, students are asked to rate their lecturers. In my own workplace, there’s a flyer with a telephone number and the invitation to call and give our opinions.
But does it work? Do our complaints ever get anywhere? Are our voices being heard? The answers can be found in a single Dilbert comic strip: a paper is introduced in the box labelled “suggestions” which contains a shredding machine.
The drip-drip effect of this constant bombardment with opportunities to voice our discontent coupled with the very real fact that there are less and less aspects of our lives under our control leads, inevitably, to feelings of apathy. If our opinions matter but nothing ever gets changed it must be because either it cannot be changed or nobody really wants it to change. Asking for bigger blackboard is just too much. And besides, I must be the only one who wants it. Well, me and the lecturer.
What’s the solution to all of this? Going back to the right to vote and the people who (dramatic voices on) died (dramatic voices off) for it, I gather we have been looking at it upside down. The right to vote wasn’t so important that people died for it, but rather it was important because people died for it. Nowadays nobody has to die for the privilege of casting their vote; it’s a right that’s granted to us free of charge. Which translates into “it’s practically useless”. If we want to effect real change we would be better off looking at the things people would have to die for.
In the meantime, how about we stop blaming young people for turning out precisely the way the world wants them to?
As for me, what can I say? I can’t vote in this country, I’m not British 😀