Apolitical Chemistry: addressing the accusation of apathy
The accusation of apathy has become the most potent mechanism through which governmental authority can avoid legitimizing itself to the public; in its concision, its ambiguity, and its malleability the word adheres to all the pre-requisites of the smoke-screen rhetoric that defines modern politics.
Unsurprisingly, it means nothing.
This is where we might typically be inclined to chuck in the oxford dictionary definition of apathy, but that definition has little to do with what politicians and the mainstream media are referring to. More interesting is the sentence example that invariably follows the definition:
“Widespread apathy amongst students”
Here we come to the insidious crux of the issue. Apathy now belongs to the young alone. The Apathetic and The Young. In recent years, young people in the UK have turned voting-age in a climate of accusation and disparagement. The tendency to see young people as technologically-saturated apathetes with no want or desire for involvement in a real society (read: the established political mechanisms) is not marginal it prevails throughout spheres of media, politics and education, and in so doing it permeates into public opinion.
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. (Though, perhaps they don’t fail to see that after all.)
Russell Brand’s recent encroachments on the borders of political debate have been met with strong reactions, both positive and negative, from the younger demographic. Yet, young people are engaging with his arguments and the challenges he is raising to the existing political paradigm. Of course we can sweep this away (as vast swathes of the media have re: Brand) with the facile claim that the young are only tuning into him because they like his stand-up, or the holes in his jeans, or his Christ-esque visage (a particular favourite amongst the press), or easier still because they were on Youtube looking for that video of the Ice Bucket Challenge where the guy shits his pants and they got lost, but this doesn’t negate the fact that young people are engaging with the political issues he is raising.
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 apolitical.
Why do we presume that the person who votes is not apathetic? They are going to the ballot and marking the box, they are ‘engaging’ in the democratic process and thus they are not apathetic, right? Well, they are not apolitical, in as much as we define the (a)politic as the current pseudo-democratic paradigm, yet this does not necessarily substantiate the existence of any kind of genuine interest, concern or enthusiasm for the political process amongst these voters. Is it not in many ways the embodiment of apathy to vote in this manner?
In this sense I agree with Brand. Turning up to the ballot without interest, concern or enthusiasm is more dangerous to real democracy than refusing to vote.
I don’t think anyone believes that Brand is an apathetic man. When he talks of voting, or the Focus E15 mums, or capital-C Change he expresses enthusiasm, concern and interest; only he voices these things outside the contours of the established political discourse. God forbid someone should try to extract the social from the socio-political compound.
Westminster has attempted, with the help of the established press, to pass off its failure to engage a disenfranchised and disillusioned population on the ‘young apathetes’ that infest the UK. It is working for now. Scape-goating the youth may be a good short-term policy but ultimately it will cost the established political structure, because this Internet generation is not as apathetic as politicians would have us believe. New channels for expression, organization and dissidence are open and it is the young who are literate and native to these mediums. It is time that the young harness their technological second-nature for real democracy.
The disenfranchising role of this ‘accusation of apathy’ cannot be understated. Earlier I said that the accusation of apathy may well breed the sentiment of apathy, but it may also breed an apolitical sentiment and this need not be a negative thing.
We need apolitical chemists to break down the artificial socio-political compound.