A discussion held on 24 June 2004.


Apathy may be seen as either a sign of sickness (arising from disillusion) or as a sign of health (arising from satisfaction). If we consider what we may be apathetic about we may indicate politics/politicians, either arising from lack of trust or because the complexity of associated issues defeats us. Alternatively, our prime concerns could be either or both immediate local social problems and/or global issues – again, we may distrust authorities or feel personally helpless. Our attitudes may be shaped by feelings of inadequacy through lack of expertise, or by complacency when we rely, for example, upon a welfare system or a political framework to meet our needs. We can suffer ‘donor fatigue’ when we feel that we have already done all that could be expected of us. We may feel strongly about local and immediate personal issues, but less so with respect to global and long-term problems. Whatever the causes, what may be the effects of apathy? Some point to dictatorship or a ‘nanny state’ or at more global outcomes, such as worldwide social distress, economic or environmental disasters and war. If such effects concern us, what should we care about and what should we do about it? If social welfare is considered in an historical context, it is possible to argue that many of the major problems affecting most people locally and even globally, have been ameliorated, if not overcome, and that history indicates overall progress. So it may be legitimate to ask- why get involved? What is wrong with apathy? In the ensuing discussion various views on such questions were expressed, points being put in the main on the political aspects raised.

Alternatives and misunderstandings It was suggested that it is necessary to recognize that while some people may be apathetic about local politics, for example, they may also be passionately committed to a particular causes or causes, often of a social nature not directly related to politics as such. Someone who had campaigned locally for a political party reported doorstep encounters with people who registered responses such as ‘couldn’t be bothered’ or ‘what are you going to do for me?’. Misunderstanding of the nature and value of a representative democracy appears to be common. One cause was thought to be over-simplification of the framework and issues by the media- where confrontational and ‘knockabout’ features were emphasised, to the exclusion often of less dramatic but basically more important and often consensual activities behind the public scene. Furthermore, it was put that people often evaluate situations according to their own views and experience rather than to more objective and dispassionate criteria – as with the current controversy relating to ‘speed cameras’, being seen as an unnecessary nuisance by some and as a safeguard by others.

Representative democracy Some argued that if voter numbers decline, elected authorities are put in charge of a less representative democracy, which gives them less reason then to work for the benefit of all rather than for a minority of voters. Currently, it does not appear locally that many people either consider that or are concerned about it. Since direct democracy is impractical in many areas of modern life, citizens must choose representatives to speak for them in various situations. If democracy declines, mediocre government, rule by demagogue, even dictatorship may result. Some commented that many young people dismiss politicians as ‘all the same’ and thus see no point in being involved with politics. Others noted that the term ‘politics’ is often interpreted as ‘party politics’, which now is commonly seen as merely confrontational and insincere.

Complexity and government For some people the effort involved in ‘finding out’ is a stumbling-block, despite the efforts of political parties, since cynicism appears to be widespread. Quasi-legal verbiage employed by politicians is often incomprehensible to a generally illiterate public, the product of a poor education system in Britain. How the increasingly complex issues of the modern world may be rendered in simpler terms for the mass of citizens appears to be a big problem today. Further, an individual may not have his opinions reflected by his nominal representative when no single party line can reflect those complexities anyway. It was pointed out that the party system was set up to ‘focus minds on the alternatives’ and that without party disciplines only individual views could be expressed, which would produce chaotic government. The present system, it was argued, offers a workable compromise. It was thought that ‘Europeans’ (i.e. continentals across the Channel) show much more interest in politics than do the British, although whether outcomes are better or worse was not discussed.

Non-participation Some see politics as simply non-productive ‘talking-shop’ activity, although at some point decisions are made which produce effects, for good or ill. Others regard themselves as being ‘overworked’ or ‘too busy’ to be involved in any political activity. Age and personal health were also mentioned as factors for non-participation, but others queried the validity of the excuses put forward. While one view was that the proportion of ‘motivated’ to ‘non-motivated’ remains fairly constant over history, another was that today the relatively inexperienced youth are more apathetic about political involvement than the more experienced elderly. However, it was also put that the term ‘apathy’ should not be related solely to politics – what distinguishes people is the degree to which they are prepared ‘to engage with the world in general’. Many people avoid formal politics in favour of concern for social issues closer to their immediate interests and in recent years it became fashionable for the young ‘not to engage’ directly, whereas at other times engagement has been favoured. Their degree of involvement appears to depend partly on educational background and family support.

Disillusion The recent growth of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘extremism’ was considered to result to some extent from general disillusionment with political developments. Divisions today lean towards either passionate commitment or apathy. Some believe that their causes are not being addressed at all by politicians and feel driven towards publicity-seeking extremes. This reflection prompted the question- ‘what do people want that they are not actually getting?’ Answers offered varied from ‘certainty’, ‘order’, ‘stability’, etc. to ‘control of the multinationals’ and even ‘taking away the need to think if others will do it for you’, which it was pointed out amounts to apathy itself- a circular argument!

The political framework After some consideration of the roles of ‘education’ and ‘personal choice’, the discussion turned to ‘short-termism’ (bolstered by media treatment) and long-termism (which is very difficult for politicians in a democratic country). Political leaders may need several terms of office to realise major ambitions, but electorates often demand immediate realisations. The length of terms of office and the possibility of compulsory voting (as in Australia) were then considered. If people want to register their dislike of all available political options they can stay away from polls or spoil papers, it was conceded. When historically helpful ‘national governments’ were mentioned it was argued that for short-terms and crucial times they might be suitable, but not for regular government. Larger, more urbanised and culturally diverse populations today require changes of government to meet changing times. Further, voting for individuals rather than parties, whilst more psychologically satisfying, would still not help voters to choose more wisely, so long as they remained as uninformed about them as they were about parties, programmes and achievements.

Geoffrey Catchpole