A Toxic Environment for Hope: the Problem of Youth Voter Apathy

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Lets say we manage to remain optimistic, and still think there is something we can do to change the world, even if it isn't physical protest. The ability of the Internet to organize and give voice to protest movements is now a well documented phenomenon with the poorly named Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Indeed, “Share to help!” and “Help find this girl!” emails have been around since the days when Nigerian Princes desperately needed our help.

Of late however, sites like Avaaz, Change.org, and Allout.org promote a new form of activism: online petitions. Sites like Avaaz give the average Internet user the ability to be a click-tivist, allowing them to sign a plethora of petitions and put the weight of their name behind a cause. Causes presented to the user are as diverse as pressuring Tim Horton’s to stop supporting animal cruelty, Stopping Fin Whale hunts, or pressuring DC comics to drop homophobic comic book writers. These sites quickly accumulate petitions of up to a million or more signatures

While the positive effect of these petitions should not be understated, (it is truly an impressive thing to proffer a petition with a million signatures) these petitions require no education as to the cause before you add your signature. In most cases, the website puts the problem to you and explains it in the briefest of terms before asking you to add your name to a petition against it. Take for example a petition on Avaaz.com titled “Hours to end the drug war in the Americas!”

 “Our continent is bleeding at the hands of organized criminals and drug traffickers, destroying thousands of lives every year. All because the US has forced Latin American governments to carry out failed drug policies that only reward the criminal gangs behind the drug trade.”

While Avaaz is usually the best at providing a sufficient amount of detail about the problems it seeks to solve, and is certainly the most aggressive at showing results for its petitions, it takes much less time to actually inform yourself and generate an opinion on the validity of US drug policy than it does to make the value judgment “destroyed lives = bad” and sign the petition, vouching for the cause.

Click-tivism, like monthly donation services, has the effect of making us feel morally weighty without ever having left the house. Furthermore, the idea that changing the world is as easy as clicking a button in the safety of your home behind a computer screen further devalues the nature of such action. We are faced with a rescaling of the effort of positive action. If we can “make change” in the world without ever leaving our house or having to actually inform ourselves about the problem, no wonder going outside into the world to mark an "X" on a piece of paper without any easy explanation offered seems like too much of a hassle.

Furthermore, like the aforementioned globalization of tragedy, there is the problem of the globalization of aid. Why is it when people want to help in the world, they immediately think they need to go do so in Africa, when people in Canada are affected by addiction, abuse, and human trafficking? Why do we think we must build houses in Guatemala to help the disadvantaged, when we have one of the largest populations of homeless people in Canada in the Downtown Eastside?

When we move to take action on a problem, it is not surprising the problems we think to move on first are global ones, partly because they are better publicized, and partly because they are easier to conceptualize in black and white terms.

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