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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 6°C

Column 'Millennials' apathy is what is allowing Brexit and Trump to thrive'

The irony is that this self-absorbed generation needs to become aware, writes Hugh O’Donnell.

NARCISSISM IS NOT new. In the past we were encouraged to see such vanity as a vice.

But now, with the endless encouragement to build self esteem, to believe we are “worth it”, and to broadcast every mundane detail of every mundane life on social media, the old vice of narcissism is well on its way to becoming a virtue.

Selfie sticks enable us to take hundreds of selfies without ever having to stop and talk. Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram provide the platform for sharing, and “Likes” are the currency, which make it all work.

Millennials plan their social media posts around peak times where they think most people will be online so as to like their status or photo, and so validate themselves.

Photos and statuses that receive too few “Likes” are quickly dropped, the apparent shame becoming unbearable. This need for validation is the only filter on what people share, apart from, of course, the internal filters provided by Instagram itself.

Focus on the self leads at best to indifference 

The problem of such hubris has long made narcissism the worst of the seven deadly sins. The focus on the self leads at best to apathy and indifference towards others, at worst to disdain.

The rampant individualism that defines the selfie generation has undermined the community upon which society itself is based. As communities are undermined so goes democracy; democracy is nothing more than the political act of a community.

When we undermine the collective upon which society is based, we undermine democracy. We get falling engagement in student politics, low voter turnout among millennials.

shutterstock_460050997 Shutterstock / Anton_Ivanov Before the US Presidential election in 2016 Kim Kardashian had more Facebook followers than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. Shutterstock / Anton_Ivanov / Anton_Ivanov

James Sloam in his article, “Voice and Equality: Young People’s Politics in the European Union” West European Politics, Volume 36, Issue 4, 2013, found that the average reported turnout since 2000 in 30 European countries among the 18-25 age category was 59% compared with 82% reported turnout among the population as a whole. And general ignorance of politics itself are all symptoms of the problem we are facing.

This ignorance is bred from indifference, and such indifference in turn is engendered by self-obsession. In a world where before the US Presidential election in 2016, Kim Kardashian had more Facebook followers than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined, or closer to home where Pippa O’Connor has almost as many Facebook followers as every Irish political party with representation in the Dáil combined, the possibility for real political discourse starts to break down.

The sea of irrelevance

Aldous Huxley’s fear that the “truth will be drowned in a sea of irrelevance” becomes a reality. Information is not being hidden from us, but facts are being drowned out and lost in the ether.

Millennials now are more interested in a meme, a 140 character tweet, or a pithy soundbite than a detailed and rational argument. We are entering the post-factual (alternative fact) world.

Brexit and Trump are only the first manifestations of a new paradigm. The old division of left and right, trade unionist and employer, secular and religious are breaking down.

Millennials aren’t the foot soldiers of this new movement, they aren’t even supporters of it, but their apathy is what is allowing it to thrive. The new battle lines are being drawn as we speak: open versus closed, rational versus populist.

Apathy is the biggest threat

Millennials may generally be inclined to the progressive and the liberal, but apathy is what has characterised us up until now. Millennials will have to deal with the consequences of this new divide, and now at least there are signs of an awakening to what is at stake.

Protests after the US Presidential election, or massive youth turnout in the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015, itself partly inspired by #hometovote are moves in the right direction. This shows that social media can be used to harness and encourage political debate and not just stifle it and lead to apathy.

The irony is that this self-absorbed generation needs to become aware. The stakes haven’t been higher in a generation. Everything that millennials have taken for granted, such as open borders, peace, and progressive social policies, are under threat.

Now that our enemy has made itself known to us let us drag the truth into the light and no longer lose it in that “sea of irrelevance”. I’m a politically apathetic millennial no more.

Hugh O’Donnell holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe-Bruges and is currently a candidate for the Barrister-at-Law degree in the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns.

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