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Opinion: Young people are not 'apathetic' - we prioritise the collective good

We have a political culture in this country that is morally bankrupt and young people are uncomfortable in propping up a system that is unsuited to the purpose intended.

Gary Gannon Social Democrats councillor with Dublin City Council

AS A RELATIVELY young person, I have been tasked to address the question ‘Generation Apathy – What Causes it? Who Can Solve It?’ In doing so, I am going to respond: we are not apathetic, we just don’t like you!

I absolutely reject the premise that my generation is wholly apathetic: we are interest-based and we are heavily engaged. As a consequence of the fact that many of yesterday’s student radicals are today’s political elite, we perhaps do not engage in such an obvious manner as joining a political party, but my generation are ever-present in contributing our labour, free of charge, in a manner entirely alien to anybody born before the 1980s.

We are the generation who rarely patent our ideas, we write, we blog and we share information on a scale that has never been experienced in human history, we volunteer on a massive scale: we are the generation who are once again prioritising the concept of collective good. I am absolutely convinced that we, as a generation, are not ethically, socially or civically apathetic, but we have a political culture in this country that is morally bankrupt and we are uncomfortable in propping up a system that is unsuited to the purpose intended.

With such low figures turning out to exercise their democratic right to vote for a representative of their choice every couple of years, it would be naïve to argue against the notion that there exists a disgruntlement that emanates from a large proportion of the populace to the political system in general. As I can imagine many others who spent the first half of this year canvassing door-to-door can attest, it is not only the case that many are apathetic to politics, but rather that they are viscerally hostile to those who seek to engage in a system that many consider to be tarnished beyond repair.

What causes political apathy?

In knocking at people’s doors and outlining a vision of how we would like to contribute to improving the circumstances of the communities we aspire to represent, we are asking that they invest their trust and a semblance of their own hope in us as elected representatives. Too often in this State have political parties and individuals abused that trust by blatantly making false promises that seek only to capture the aspiration of the day to the detriment of the voter of tomorrow. Too often has party politics been responsive only to the ideals of the wealthy to the detriment of the ideals of representative democracy.

It is almost embarrassing to even mention the ideals of representative democracy when one considers the class, gender and cultural imbalance of Dáil Éireann. Do we even pretend to believe in a ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’ anymore? Did anybody flinch when the last cabinet re-shuffle unfolded a front bench of predominantly white, middle class, conservative men? If we believe in any semblance of representative democracy then surely we must look around at our Dáil and ask ourselves the question – for which people?

It is a matter of fact that it is in communities such as my own, which exhibit the highest levels of social and economic disadvantage, where what many would describe as the manifestations of political apathy are so highly pronounced. Yes, our turnout on election days is low but perhaps that correlates directly with the level of interest consecutive governments have taken in confronting the type of residual poverty and structural inequality that have too long blighted the landscape of working class communities throughout Ireland.

The question remains as to why people, whether young or old, are politically apathetic and yet, the most obvious response is, why wouldn’t they be? In our victim-blaming culture we continue to lament the figures and yet nobody seeks to address why we expect society’s most marginalised to engage politically in a system that offers no real representation and actively seeks to impoverish them; a system that makes access to education unequal and expensive; a system that protects the wealth of the privileged while actively seeking to export our discontented young or lock in their economic discomfort through activation measures that appear to exist only for the purpose of massaging the figures and the opportunity of a press release.

Reactive empathy

We often talk of apathy without ever discussing the virtue of the juxtaposition of that vice – empathy. To penetrate, even slightly, the causes of apathy we need to demonstrate the type of reactive empathy that is displayed by the thousands of members of my generation who, motivated by their compassion, seek to make life a little bit more bearable for people who find themselves in positions of vulnerability.

In my community we have a fantastic social start-up called The Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), which began last winter when a couple of young ladies in a local gym discussed how awful it would be to find yourself sleeping rough on the streets during our bitingly cold December. So much has happened since then but essentially twice a week those same ladies and other volunteers who together formed the ICHH take to the streets of Dublin from 11pm to provide food, a hot drink and warm clothes to homeless people who, in some cases, are in positions that are only slightly more precarious than those who are actually distributing the provisions.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke is the Chair of the ICHH and he goes on this homeless run weekly, without fail. Several months back, Christy was leading a team of volunteers who came across a 17-year-old heavily-pregnant girl attempting to sleep inside an industrial bin in Temple Bar. This is Ireland in 2014 – and you wonder why we are apathetic to the political system!

Do you really want to solve the apathy of the politically disillusioned? If you wish to address the cause of our apathy then you must first realise that it is about more than simply offering tax incentives or pay-rises to people to whom we will never relate. It’s bigger still than workers versus employers or the political spectrum of Right versus Left. We are so very tired of living in an economy where trickle-down economics mean some people might be able to get jobs as cleaners in large financial institutions. If you want to address the cause of our apathy then maybe we can invest in public housing, affordable childcare, domestic violence services or recovery beds where people who injected themselves with a poison in the hope of escaping the hell that was their everyday life can find the assistance they need to become clean again.

Could you, politicians, please stop being apathetic towards not only my generation, but my community and other communities similar to mine, and in particular to the multitude of different volunteers, interest groups and organisations who have stepped in to fill the cracks of society from which you have long since relinquished responsibility?

We live in a society where 80,000 people rest uncomfortably on the waiting list for social housing, where women are denied their reproductive rights, where even today – despite all that we have apologised for – we still institutionalise marginalised groups. I can point you to a thousand examples of where my generation has wilfully taken the baton from those who have campaigned before us and we have demanded progressive action on all these issues and more.

Now, you look me in the eye and tell me who are the apathetic ones.

Gary Gannon is an independent councillor for the Dublin’s North Inner City. This article is an edited version of his speech to the MacGill Summer School, delivered Thursday 24 July 2014.

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About the author:

Gary Gannon  / Social Democrats councillor with Dublin City Council

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