“How often do we hear that people just don’t care? How many times have you been told that real substantial change is impossible because most people are too selfish, too stupid or too lazy to try and make a difference in their community? I propose to you today that apathy, as we think we know it, doesn’t actually exist; but rather that people do care but that we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way. “
In his powerful and (still) acutely relevant 2010 TEDx talk, The Antidote to Apathy, Dave Meslin makes the argument that to combat apathy we need to redefine it for what it is: a systemic problem rather than a human one. He goes through a set of seven extremely well presented examples–from the (intentionally dreadful) design of city hall communications to the need for different narratives around leadership–to show that lack of civic engagement does not come from innate human apathy but from a host of systemic barriers and obstacles. In reframing the problem as a design failure rather than a personal one, he begins to outline ways in which we might tackle and dismantle the obstacles that stand in the way of transformative political change.
“If we can redefine apathy not as some kind of internal syndrome but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement and if we can clearly define, we clearly identify what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.”
I’ve transcribed some of my favorite points below but urge you to watch the video for yourself, it’s seven minutes extremely well spent.
PUBLIC SPACE – THE PERILS OF PUTTING A PRICE TAG ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
“The manner in which we mistreat our public space is a huge obstacle towards any type of progressive political change because we’ve essentially put a price tag on freedom of expression—whoever has the most money gets the loudest voice, dominating the mental, visual environment. The problem with this model is that there’s some amazing messages that need to be said that aren’t profitable to say, so you’re never going to see them on a billboard.”
THE MEDIA – REINFORCES THE DANGEROUS IDEA THAT POLITICS IS A SPECTATOR SPORT
“The media plays an important role in developing our relationship with political change, mainly by ignoring politics and focusing on celebrities and scandals, but even when they do talk about important political issues, they do it in a way that I feel discourages engagement. I’ll give you an example. The “Now” magazine from last week: progressive, downtown weekly in Toronto. This is the cover story. It’s an article about a theater performance, and it starts with basic information about where it is, in case you actually want to go and see it after you’ve read the article — where, the time, the website. Same with this — it’s a movie review. An art review. A book review — where the reading is in case you want to go. A restaurant — you might not want to just read about it, maybe you want to go there. So they tell you where it is, the prices, the address, the phone number, etc.
Then you get to their political articles. Here’s a great article about an important election race that’s happening. It talks about the candidates, written very well, but no information, no follow-up, no websites for the campaigns, no information about when the debates are, where the campaign offices are. Here’s another good article, about a new campaign opposing privatization of transit, without any contact information for the campaign. The message seems to be that the readers are most likely to want to eat, maybe read a book, maybe see a movie, but not be engaged in their community. You might think this is a small thing, but I think it’s important, because it sets a tone and it reinforces the dangerous idea that politics is a spectator sport.”
THE PROBLEM WITH HEROES – WHY WE NEED DIFFERENT NARRATIVES AROUND LEADERSHIP
“A heroic effort is a collective effort, number one. Number two, it’s imperfect; it’s not very glamorous, and doesn’t suddenly start and suddenly end. It’s an ongoing process your whole life. But most importantly, it’s voluntary. It’s voluntary. As long as we’re teaching our kids that heroism starts when someone scratches a mark on your forehead, or someone tells you you’re part of a prophecy, they’re missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within. It’s about following your own dreams, uninvited, and then working with others to make those dreams come true.
POLITICAL PARTIES – THE NEED FOR BOLD AND CREATIVE VISIONS TO MOTIVATE CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
“Political parties could, and should be, one of the basic entry points for people to get engaged in politics. Instead, they’ve become, sadly, uninspiring and uncreative organizations that rely so heavily on market research, polling and focus groups that they end up all saying the same thing; pretty much regurgitating back to us what we already want to hear, at the expense of putting forward bold and creative ideas. And people can smell that and it feeds cynicism.”