Apathy and irony
For many young people, caring about the world's problems can be both too painful and seemingly futile. Here's how we cope.

By KATE RAYNES-GOLDIE Monday, Aug 9, 2004

To any onlooker, what we were doing would've seemed perfectly normal. We had just come out of a downtown movie theatre, my friends and I, and had gathered in a circle to discuss the film we had just seen. The chilly winter air nipped at our fingers as some of us lit up Big Tobacco cigarettes and others contemplated a quick stop at McDonald's on the way home. We were just a bunch of kids doing what we usually did, except for the fact that we had just come out of The Corporation -- a film about the high social, cultural and environmental costs of large multinational firms -- and the things we were doing as we discussed the film were the very things that keep these big corporations in business. If we were so unhappy with the way these firms make their money, why were we smoking cigarettes and planning to eat McDonald's food? Were we just a bunch of cynical kids hiding behind the irony of our actions in order to avoid taking any responsibility? Or were we really just living up to society's perception that young people are lazy and apathetic?

Having been born right at the point where Generation X ends and Generation Y begins, I am keenly aware of the dim view that many older folks have of our lack of engagement with the state of the world. To put it bluntly, many people think that Gen X and Y-ers just don't care about anything but themselves. Instead of attending rallies and protesting social injustice as many of our parents did in the 1960s and 1970s, the perception is that we've checked out to spend our time with video games and computers, alcohol, drugs and sex, and the worship of Britney Spears.

Ever since I became involved with social activism a few years ago, I've experienced this negative feedback. It's been revealed in remarks from older friends, commentators, professors and even frustrated activists my own age. When important events such as our recent federal election come around, its impossible not to see our society's dim view of its youth. I couldn't listen to election coverage without hearing about the crisis among young voters who were clearly not turning out at the polls in record numbers. Older people called in to radio talk shows and claimed younger people were ignorant and needed to be responsible for educating themselves about key political issues. Election commentators complained that young people spent all their time thinking about trivialities rather than reading the paper or going to political websites.

Of course, interviews with young people seemed to confirm these facts: they had little interest in the election and were uneducated about the issues.

But very few people have really stopped to find out why young people have chosen ignorance and apathy. For many people my age, caring about the world and its problems is either too painful, seemingly futile, or both. So we cope through apathy and ignorance. We are two generations who feel helpless to effect any positive change in the world. Some of us feel it more acutely than others, but we all feel it on some level.

Yet, I think many of us are unable to express this feeling, for it seems such a normal part of our everyday existence. I myself couldn't verbalize this until recently, when I was reading a friend's blog. He wrote that he was surprised that no one had written about the nagging doubt that something was very wrong with the world -- the doubt that underlies the cynicism and apathy of young people. This is exactly what I saw in my friends as we stood outside the theatre last winter. We were all angered and upset by what we had seen, yet none of us felt there was anything we could do about it. The best we could do was laugh about the irony of our actions and get on with our lives. I had the same feeling of helplessness coming out of Fahrenheit 9/11 this summer.

While the actions of my friends may appear entirely hypocritical, they really speak to the motivations behind youth apathy and ignorance. It's an admission that the problems we see with the world are extremely complicated and seemingly impossible to change, especially since it's in the best interests of many powerful people to have things continue on, unchanged. It also speaks to the ease with which the delusion that everything is all right can be maintained. The bright and welcoming McDonald's sign and the shiny corporate veneer of cigarette packaging (if you ignore the government warning labels) are made to seem inviting and consequence-free -- the same is true for most of the things we encounter on a daily basis. While many people already realize the costs of smoking and fast food, few realize that many seemingly everyday actions -- such as buying a new cellphone or having a cup of coffee -- have equally troublesome (yet invisible) social, cultural and environmental consequences.

Upon realizing this, it's pretty tempting to throw up one's hands and just give up. And unfortunately, those who refuse to resign themselves to apathy often face greater challenges and frustrations when they try to effect positive change. Another friend told me about the time she was handing out information on Engineers Without Borders, a non-profit human development organization. She had prepared an immaculate display and detailed slide show, but almost everyone ignored her. "I gave this one guy a pamphlet," she told me, "and with my own eyes, I saw him tear it in half as he walked away. He might as well have torn my heart in two."

The more it seems that no one else cares, the less empowered we all feel to make positive change. But the reverse is also true: positive change becomes easier as more and more people become involved and support each other. And that, I think, is where my message can become a more positive one.

Fundamentally, we all want a better world, but we express this in different ways. If we can improve intergenerational understanding and dialogue, young people will feel more supported and empowered to effect positive change, rather than feeling that the world really doesn't care.

It offers hope that apathy will slowly become a less appealing choice.

Kate Raynes-Goldie is Toronto-based.