What's The Antidote To Political Apathy?

Feb 6, 2015
Originally published on May 19, 2017 9:22 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Seven Deadly Sins

About Dave Meslin's TED Talk

Activist Dave Meslin says even though we're apathetic about local politics, we're hardly sloths.

About Dave Meslin

Dave Meslin is a community coordinator in Toronto. Some of his projects include 2006's City Idol contest, which put a fresh face on council elections; co-editing Local Motion, a book about civic projects in Toronto; and Dandyhorse and Spacing magazines. He also founded the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT). His latest crowdsourcing project is called 100 Remedies for a Broken Democracy.

CORRECTION: In the original broadcast of this segment, we said around 36,000 people elected Washington, D.C.'s mayor in the 2014 election. The actual number is 96,666.

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So here in Washington, D.C., where we produce this show, the population is roughly 650,000 people. And of those people, about 450,000 are eligible to vote. But of those, in the last mayor's race, just 36,000 people elected the new mayor. That's 5 percent of the city's entire population. Call it apathy, or sloth, which is our next sin.

DAVE MESLIN: You're not using your body. Maybe you're not using your mind. It's a physical laziness but also maybe a spiritual laziness.

RAZ: This is Dave Meslin. He's a community organizer in Toronto. And in his job, he runs into political apathy all the time. People don't vote. They don't follow the issues. They don't even know who represents them in government. They're sloths. But actually, according to Dave, they're not. I mean, you don't think that, like, that people tune out of politics or whatever's going on in the world in part because they're kind of lazy?

MESLIN: I think it's more of an escape. You know, I think a lot of us have a lot of negative feelings about the world. I think we're angry about a lot of stuff in the world or confused about it, and we definitely feel disconnected. I mean, we have this mythology that corporations and government have just become these monstrous things and we as individuals have no role to play. We can't compete with big money. And when people tune out and decide to watch a TV show, it's not apathy. It's a sense of, like, well, what the hell can I do? That's a sense of hopelessness, which is so different than apathy.

RAZ: OK, so in his TED Talk, Dave argues that what we think of as apathy is really more like a reaction to the feeling that we have no say in what happens in the world around us.


MESLIN: 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. And I'll give you an example. The NOW magazine from last week - progressive downtown weekly in Toronto - this is the cover story. It's a 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, a art review, a restaurant. You might not want to just read about it. Maybe you want to go to the restaurant. So they tell you where it is, what the prices are, 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 - talks about the candidates, written very well - but no information, no follow-up, no websites for 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. And you might think this 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. And you add all this up together, and, of course, people are apathetic. It's like trying to run into a brick wall.

As long as we believe that people - our own neighbors - are selfish, stupid or lazy, then there's no hope. But we can open up City Hall. We can reform our electoral systems. We can democratize our public spaces. My main message is 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 what those obstacles are and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.

RAZ: You know, I mean, obviously, we're looking at the seven deadly sins on the show today. And, you know, after hearing that, I'm thinking, like, maybe we have this whole, like, this whole sloth thing wrong.

MESLIN: (Laughter) Sure. Well, there's just - there's so little evidence that people are selfish or lazy or stupid. And in fact, I would argue that greed can sometimes be a cure for sloth. And what I mean by that is we often talk about political engagement in the context of it's is a civic duty. You know, you should vote because it's your responsibility. I think you should vote out of greed. I think the best way to get people voting isn't to say, it's your duty as a citizen. It's to say, don't you care about the transit system? Don't you care about your taxes? Don't you care about the quality of your water? Well, if you care, it's in your own self-interest and selfishness and greed to participate in a system that's been set up to make sure that you have a voice. I don't think that the seven deadly sins is about never doing any of them. I think it's about figuring out maybe when they are appropriate in some measure. And yeah, maybe how they can actually counteract each other.

RAZ: Dave Meslin, community organizer. Watch his talk, "The Antidote To Apathy," at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.