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

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But just becuase it is easier to get our heads around the idea of feeding children in Africa does not mean that the problems we find at home are not just as, if not more, pressing. There is an inherent disparity between the number of people that sign petitions online and contribute to The Red Cross, and the number that volunteer at Insite or the Kettle Friendship Society. We paradoxically don’t look at the homeless person we pass by on the street and think we can do anything for them, yet look at photos of crying women from Latin America, and think we can stop a drug war.We couldn’t conceive how to begin with the former, but we can easily add out signature to help solve the latter.  

The scale of our engagement, when we even are willing to be so, is too far beyond the local to be bothered with voting in a provincial election. We see more value in and find it easier to sign a petition to stop the massacre of Fin Whales than go to a polling station to vote.

The Sustainability of Action

This is the environment the young men and women who make up the statistic of low youth voter turnout find themselves. We see a world rife with corruption, murder, terrorism, and government scandal with no end in sight and nothing we can do about it. The bad guys, it seems, have already won. The nature of doing something about it is devalued to a complacent pabulum. We find ourselves scoffing at “revolutions” and “protests” because when was the last time those actually changed anything anyway?  We live in a world where engagement is trivialized.

We live in a world where we can buy our way into helping the environment without ever taking any real, life changing action. Where when we do wish to actually be “engaged” we can do so from the safety of a computer screen with little effort to educate ourselves and gain an unwarranted feeling of moral superiority for doing so. In such a world, is it any surprise we as youth don’t vote? Is it any surprise then that we as a generation are beset by an acute case of compassion fatigue?

When we live in such an environment so toxic for hope for any positive outcome, it should be no surprise when you ask a person my age “why didn’t you vote?” and the answer is “why should I?”

Perhaps this is an answer to the question that I keep hearing: young people don’t engage in political process because their ability to be positive about engagement is sapped by the world around them.

Upon coming to this conclusion I was beset by an acute sense of hopelessness. What could I hope to do about the problems I see in the world, which are so numerous, pervasive, and in many cases seem to be fights that are already lost? With this in mind I went to meet my friend Faber.

We were talking about what we could actually do create change in the world. He said, “what I’ve found important is that my engagement is sustainable.” Thinking I had misheard, I asked him to repeat what he had said. As my inquiry into this topic began with his words, it was perhaps fitting that they ended with them. “Look, I’ve been a vegetarian for four years… I’m wearing vegan shoes…and when I buy clothes I buy second hand stuff…I bike everywhere or take the bus…what you do has to be sustainable.”

When we are told every moment about bad things happening in the world, and in many cases the nature of the news, like the recent uncovering of PRISM, seem to be on a scale and on a level which we simply cannot affect with votes or with protest, we feel that the action required to fix these problems must be on a similar scale. We are overwhelmed before we even start to do anything.

But if we instead of looking at the larger problems and thinking they require conceptually "large" actions, focus on comparatively "small", daily actions, we stand a chance not only of making change in the world, but also of continuing to do so. We cannot all be at the front of the picket line, but we can all take shorter showers. We cannot all root out government corruption single handedly, but we can boycott products and services that are not in accordance with our values. Then the idea of what it means to be engaged in active change making  stops being something that is perceived massive effort, but rather a comparatively easy, attainable set of actions taken everyday. A game of inches.

We can hope to change the world by cultivating an engaged critical lifestyle, one that makes small choices from an ideological position, with constant evaluation, one that doesn’t compromise on those small choices, or shy away from big ones. If we in BC, instead of preaching the value of political process and then blaming the youth who can’t see it, tried to offer a vision of hope by emphasizing the importance of real, life long action, then perhaps we would find a real solution to the problem of youth apathy. And if we as youth attempt to address the problem of compassion fatigue within ourselves, perhaps we will actually be able to do something about the problems at our global doorstep.

Perhaps then, come the next election, we wont have to listen to a broken record.


-Special thanks to Maria and Faber for their help.

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