It’s been a long-running joke in Australian politics that we as a nation have a tradition of ‘donkey voting’ and generally making fun of our politics and politicians. We have a widespread view that all of our politicians are ‘crooked’. Even former Prime Minister Paul Keating once joked that he wouldn’t trust our current group of leaders with the spare change jar. For those of us in the Millennial generation and later, we have grown up within a political climate and culture that assumes our parliamentarians are corrupt, and that this level of greed and ineptitude is simply ‘how it is.’ We have very little faith in our elected officials to do the right thing, and even less faith in their ability to do so.
Combine our culture of distrust for parliament with an ever-growing dread surrounding the instability of our neo-conservative economy, and government inaction on solutions to combat ecological disaster and climate change, and we have created the perfect formula for creating widespread apathy among today’s youth – who frequently and openly state that they feel the world as we know it could collapse at any moment. Apathy towards a future full of dread.
The problem with apathy is not that people don’t care, but that they feel powerless. This feeling is only calcified the more issues are discussed and shared, and the urgency and importance of immediate action are emphasized. There is a point when the level of alarm and stress that the vocalization of these issues reaches, where the reaction is no longer one of resolve or determination, but numbness. Every day social media is filled with reports, petitions, outrage, calls for boycotts, and rallies for action at every level of humanity – from ecological threats to social injustice, political corruption and inadequacies in healthcare delivery. The list of urgent, necessary change feels endless. No matter how caring a person you are, you will hit your point of apathy eventually. How can you not, when you look at all of the issues and see nothing but a future of endless struggle?
The situation becomes almost paradoxical: one cannot take action on these issues unless apathy is broken, but communicating these issues to people only hardens apathy.
But there is – possibly – a surprisingly simple solution.
The zeitgeist of our age is – arguably – short-form humor. The internet, our primary means of global communication, is brimming with memes. They run the full spectrum of human experiences: from consolatory to offensive, positive to negative, light to dark, sarcastic to sardonic and everything in between. Short-form humor has become the cultural exchange of our generation. It is also a very effective form of communication, especially in the political space. For example: a well-made meme could summarize an entire report on economic instability, and make a joke about it simultaneously, while conveying both points in the time it takes you to scroll past it. In terms of getting a message to people it is very effective; but there is also an interesting secondary effect of this phenomenon.
The humor element can break through apathy. On an emotional level, a meme that is nothing more than a picture of a destroyed forest with a few sarcastic words about corporate greed will resonate strongly – and with far more people – than a thoroughly researched 500-page report on the same issue. Using humor is the best way to take the power from an overwhelming thought. By making fun of these terrifying situations, we begin the work of emotionally handling them – especially when we share those feelings and laugh at them together. That is the spark of the energy needed to begin taking action. That shared experience – one stripped to raw emotion, one that we can all relate to and laugh about together.
The detailed causes and solutions to the problems of the world will be found in the reports and research of field experts. But the emotional energy needed to mobilize support to begin dealing with those issues will come from shared short-form messages from passionate people.
The growing progressive movement in Australia is working hard to begin chipping away at our national apathy. We have a whole country of passionate and caring people who feel overwhelmed at the prospect of a future filled with dread. Reaching these people; showing them they are not alone, bringing them together and building a community around our shared desire to see a better world, is a top priority. How we communicate that message to them is crucial.
As progressive communicators it is our job to break apathy and introduce people to issues and solutions without overloading them. This balance is critical. The delivery of the message is just as important as the message itself. The right – especially the radical right (or ‘alt-right’) - learned this lesson a long time ago, and they have been mastering it since.
It is beyond time that we learned it too.