The privilege of apathy

These last few weeks, I keep hearing a common sentiment, “I can’t wait for this election to be over so I can stop hearing about politics.” I have heard this sentiment in one form or another all over the place: television, the news, my coworkers, even my own family. And this appears to be a common mindset. According to Anna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, associate professors of political science at Stony Brook University, more than 80% of Americans follow politics casually or don’t follow it at all.1 I can’t understand this sentiment. To me, being aware of current politics is a necessity, not just something that I am required to do every 2-4 years. I follow politics because I can’t afford to, I don’t have the privilege of being apathetic.

Politics and government have too much of an effect on my life and my future for me to simply ignore it. Much of that influence has to do with me being transgender. I eventually want to change my name and gender marker on my state-issued ID’s, that requires changes to the law. I want to come out at work in the future without risking the loss of my job. That requires stronger anti-discrimination laws for trans people. Both of these changes require politicans and leaders that support trans rights to succeed. The influence of politics goes beyond just the law, however, it influences society and culture (and vice versa). Our society and culture tend to reflect our leadership, and the success of bigoted and transphobic politicians leads to more bigotry in general society. Political fearmongering about minority groups can lead to increased discrimination and mistreatment. The campaign and election of a racist or bigoted politician encourages those same bigoted beliefs and behaviors in their supporters and in the general populace. On the other hand, the success of LGBT politicians and politicians who champion LGBT rights can improve visibility and awareness of LGBT issues. Politics has a large influence on my life, my future, and on general society.

Political apathy requires two conditions, acceptance of the current reality and minimal fear of political changes. At its very foundation, political apathy is the acceptance of the current political state of your country and the world. Apathetic people do not contact their politicians, protest, or get involved (most don’t even vote). By being apathetic, they have given up any ability to change the current political realities in which they live. They can do this because they are comfortable in and benefit from the current political reality. Those who lack security and safety in the current political state cannot ignore politics without consequence, as doing so robs them of the ability to escape that insecurity. The ability to ignore politics is a privilege limited to those who are secure in the status quo, those who can eschew political involvement without jeopardizing their personal security.

The other condition for political apathy is minimal fear of political change. By giving up the ability to influence governance, the politically apathetic effectively give control of the political state of the country to those who are not apathetic. They can do this because it is unlikely that any political changes will actually affect them in any meaningful way. For the majority of people, the worst-case scenario of political change is tax increases or decreased property values. They are not concerned that an election or law could result in the loss of their rights or liberties because their is no political will to do so. As a result, they can safely avoid political engagement or awareness. Political apathy is a privilege reserved for those who do not fear negative outcomes from their political disengagement.

Political apathy is more than just a privilege, it is ultimately an act of selfishness. Apathy requires that one not only be secure that they will not be negatively impacted by politics but also to not care about the effects that it has on others. Even if the current situation works for you, there are still those who are marginalized and disadvantaged by the political status quo. Those disadvantaged by the contemporary political reality are also often those who must struggle the most to be politically involved, often due to intentional disenfranchisement and political suppression. By staying away from politics, the apathetic are making a choice to ignore those who are disadvantaged and insecure in the current political climate. Inaction is not a neutral stance, it is a stance in favor of maintaining the current state of affairs. Political apathy is not just ignoring the realm of politics, it is also ignoring the plight and existence of those who are negatively affected by the current political reality.

Sources:

1. Krupnikov, Y., & Ryan, J. (2020, October 20). The Real Divide in America Is Between Political Junkies and Everyone Else. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/opinion/polarization-politics-americans.html

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