The origins and solutions of apathy - English

Quitting the paralysis

By Antje Scharenberg30.06.2015Culture and Society, Europe

Half a decade after Stéphane Hessel’s call for outrage, young people continue to languish in apathy. Could our society’s emphasis of individualism be at fault?


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In his famous polemic “Indignez-vous”, former diplomat and UN activist Stéphane Hessel asked the young generation to fight against the injustices of contemporary society. Hessel emphasized the importance of preserving key democratic values such as peace, social justice, and human rights, as they had been defended during the Résistance movement. Furthermore, he explains what we should get angry about, namely issues he defines as key threats to these values: the reign of global free market capitalism, environmental issues, and warfare between nations and peoples – such as the lasting conflict in Gaza. Taking a brief look at the current state of the world – five years after Hessel’s call for indignation – it quickly becomes obvious that these problems have not exactly disappeared. If anything, they have grown worse.

Europe, in particular, is threatened to fall apart as its underlying values are strained by a number of serious challenges: the lingering crisis in Greece is shaking up the economic and moral foundations of the entire Union; conflicts in the continent’s vicinity have brought about a massive increase of migration, and the crisis in Ukraine not only torments its citizens but is also poised to have a lasting impact on Europe’s relationship with Russia. Meanwhile, the Tories have won the British elections with the promise of a Brexit referendum, whilst right-wing populism fuels resentment across a worrying number of countries. All of this doesn’t even include more global challenges – ISIS, climate change, big data – you name it. In brief, it’s fair to say that a lack of things to be angry about can hardly be the explanation for the fact that young people don’t feel outrage.

Growing up in a ubiquitous crisis

Hessel suggests that indifference could be the source of societal disengagement and lack of resistance. Indeed, young people across Europe have been ascribed a stereotypical set of characteristics – apathy, disengagement, and, well, indifference. What can be said with certainty, however, is that these persons share a mutual context across boundaries. Young people today have been growing up amidst such a ubiquity of crises that chaos has become their normality. A few years ago, our generation hit the job market precisely at the pinnacle of the global financial crisis. Today, every second young person in several southern European countries remains unemployed. In regions that are economically better off, many are living in precarious situations and can hardly pay for the student debts that will stay with them for a significant part of their adult lives.

Frankly, why should we care about the state of a world that put us in these situations because of crises we haven’t even created? Why should we feel responsible for systematic problems when we might already be facing existential challenges on a daily basis? From a psychological point of view, it is obvious why omnipresent crises lead to an increased flight into the private sphere. Humans facing complex situations that entail unpredictable risks long for a sense of security. Staying within the private realm can at least give them the illusion of some sort of control. Indifference, then, by exclusion of uncontrollable risks, becomes a survival mechanism. Therefore, one could argue that indifference is a symptom of an underlying issue, rather than its origin. In order to get to the bottom of it, though, it might be worth digging a bit deeper. Rather than thinking about indifference as the cause of political apathy, we need to find out why we have become indifferent about society in the first place.

An ideology that ‘divides its own believers’

Whilst many forms of individual freedoms gained throughout the 20th century can be considered positive accomplishments, individualization also has its negative side effects. One of them is the common assumption that the individual is entirely responsible for his or her own situation. Instead of challenging certain aspects of society, the contemporary individual tends to seek improvements and solutions solely within his or her personal behaviors and individual scope of reference.

This is particularly true for the young generation. Although many of us are connected by the fact that we are directly or indirectly affected by the aforementioned problems, we largely deal with the resulting challenges solitarily. Worse still, we consequently start competing with one another for jobs and opportunities. We hope that we only have to do one more internship, one more month of volunteering, or an additional Masters in order to be fine. We curate our CVs and become the perfect candidates; only to end up being dubbed a generation that is ‘overqualified and underemployed’.

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman believes that this approach of continuous self-improvement and an “ always work harder” attitude represents an _ideology of privatization_. Bauman argues that this ideology, which has developed alongside the individualization of Western neoliberal societies, replaces thinking about the societal whole. In fact, it even disables the idea of a collective vision altogether so that the consideration of society and forms of solidarity are seen as counter-productive. Thatcher’s notion that there is “no such thing as society” is the starting point for an individual’s decision-making.

Is there really no alternative?

Evaluating the lack of political engagement of the young generation from this perspective suggests that the origin of apathy might indeed go beyond mere indifference or feelings of paralysis amongst young people. Rather, it seems that in a contemporary context, neoliberal dynamics have overshadowed some of the values that Hessel wanted us to carry on. What’s particularly worrying is the fact that this new kind of ideology is reinforced by how neoliberal politics have been legitimized over and over again since Thatcher. Frequently repeated through Angela Merkel, “there is no alternative” has become the mantra of our generation. It seems that, for the longest time, we have accepted this excuse for the sake of a promised stability. Unfortunately, given the current situation in Europe, it turns out that this stability was an illusion in the first place.

Hence, Hessel’s call for young people to unite in outrage is more urgent than ever. And while it’s important to discuss what might hold young people back from engaging with politics and societal issues, it is worth mentioning that the last five years have also left us with a sense of hope.
Different examples like Occupy Wall Street or the student protests against raised tuition fees in Britain in 2010 have proven that young people can indeed get together to fight for a common goal. Moreover, the outcome of the G7 summit suggests that climate change activism over the last few years has been effective in putting pressure on politicians, bringing about change on a bigger scale.

Of course, Hessel was right in quoting Sartre and stressing that every single one of us is responsible for how history turns out. However, maybe we need to interpret his invitation slightly differently and understand that we also have to unite our individual voices more frequently, and more effectively. It’s most definitely time for Europe’s youth to demand and shape true alternatives, together.



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