Activism and Apathy

By: Sara Barnes

apathy imageWhile researching the debate on legalizing abortion in Indonesia I came across something which at first surprised me. To the people with the power to make or prevent a change in the law there is no debate. The topic is a non-issue to politicians, the media and public figures. Granted, woman’s reproductive rights are not often seen as a sexy topic – but surely they are at least controversial enough to garner debate?

In a conservative society one could imagine that this lack of interest comes from an entrenched societal conception of abortion as a sin. Case closed – no need for discussion. However, an estimated 2 million illegal abortions are carried out every year in Indonesia. Although the penalty for a woman caught having an abortion or a doctor caught carrying out the procedure is steep (up to 10 years), cases are rarely taken to court. When clinics offering the procedure are found out the problem generally disappears with a quiet exchange of money. It seems the idea of abortion as an inconceivable sin is not so entrenched as to escape corruption.

So where is the attempt to place abortion on the agenda getting lost? It would seem people just do not care. For the same reason that someone rolls their eyes when politics come up over a beer, reproductive rights are not on the political agenda. The average person is apathetic, and if the average person cannot bring themselves to act the politician trying to win their vote or the journalist trying to sell an article does not need to care. Dangerously, the feeling of apathy is not limited everyday people; it also invades the activist community. Many people who start out young, passionate and empowered become fatigued over time. Activists run out of energy and fade or merge into the system they were fighting against. In Indonesia and across the world it is common for young activists to walk the path from civil society activism to NGOs or charities to positions in government. While people working from within the system are necessary to implement change, if the struggle for human rights is conducted entirely within government institutions the majority of people who these rights belong to are excluded. And exclusion only leads to greater apathy.

Although apathy is often understood as simply not caring, Dave Meslin argues against this conception. Rather he suggests that social systems actively obstruct engagement. As long as people do not know how or why to act, apathy will remain. Meslin identifies certain obstacles which deter action and encourage apathy. Obstacles worth considering include; the complex legal and political jargon used when political institutions do reach out to the people, the way our public space is sold to the highest bidder so messages that are not profitable often remain unshared, the lack of contact information for civil organisations in media reporting and the conception of heroes in society as being born or made rather than making themselves.  It follows that by removing these obstacles we can engage society and fight apathy. The question is how?

Find Dave Meslin’s The antidote to apathy on TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html

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