Updated: Mar 12, 2021
By Irisa R.
The idea that young people who are passionate about a cause, literally any cause, are blindly speeding down a dead end road, destined to be replaced with bitterness, is a dangerous myth. It’s dangerous because it operates on the assumption that we can live a life, free of any ‘politics’.
In high school, I would try my best to stay out of any political discussions. I was the Other on so many fronts. As a Brown, Muslim girl, how could I possibly be seen to be objective? At sixteen, we were sitting in a humanities class speaking about the morality of war, when my teacher took it as an opportunity to go on a tirade about the necessity of the Iraq war and she asked us, ‘if you were controlling the lever to a runaway trolley barrelling down the train tracks and you could either kill an Iraqi civilian or an Australian soldier, who would you choose? This one moment drastically changed my mindset. I realised that no matter how small I made myself in a conversation, or how hard I tried to stay away from talking about politics, that by staying silent I was passively supporting what she was saying.
I had wrongly assumed that I could choose to be apolitical, that by not participating in conversations, or actively trying to understand the systems that controlled my way of life, I was limiting their power. This mindset is what I look back on and call blind optimism. It was training my brain to see the world through rose tinted glasses: it was hope without any direction. It assumed that a ‘happy-go-lucky’ mindset could wish away anything bad in the world and that staying out of politics was the only sensible choice. The philosophy of nihilism captures this idea that, 'the world is crap so we might as well get on with our life and accept that this is the best we will ever get.’ The Australian Election Survey, which is a research project that monitors post - election sentiments, found that the disillusionment with the political process has reached an all time high. It found that close to 40% of the participants were either disinterested in politics, or they believed that anything they did was futile.
Myth #1: “I’m Just Not a Political Person”
Staying away from politics thrives on the assumption that you can choose to opt in or out of politics. Yet, every decision we make is innately political. Recently, I went through my pantry and my wardrobe, looking at where I spent my money in the past year. Every action I had ever made, from where I eat, to where I buy my clothes, to the shows I watch, to the music I listen to, is innately political. These choices seem inconsequential in the moment, often made on a whim.
However, even the everyday items that we fill our shopping carts with are embedded with political meaning. Every time we buy Coon cheese, a brand named after a racial slur since its creation in the Jim Crow era in America, we unwittingly endorse this branding choice. Even something as simple as sugar has an exploitative history. The largest Australian company manufacturing sugar, CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining Company), was built on the backs of enslaved Indians and Fijians who were forced to work on sugar plantations. So, when I bought CSR sugar to bake my apolitical cake for my apolitical friend for an apolitical party, I still made a choice to support this company. When I decided to buy a shirt from Zara, unknowingly, I was supporting the use of sweatshops, even when some of these sweatshops were a thirty minute drive from my own Auntie’s house in Dhaka.
When I used to turn on the movie ‘The Blind Side’ (2009) a line - by line, textbook version of the white saviour complex, wrapped up in the body of a very palatable (and very white) actress Sandra Bullock, I again made a choice. I chose to see a young African American man be reduced to a ‘dumb athlete’ whose only strength came from his athleticism. The real Michael Coen came out and explained that he was always academically strong, despite the movie’s portrayal of him as struggling to string a few words together. Every book you read and every movie you watch is a choice. Being apolitical can only ever be a mindset because passively or actively you are promoting a political stance whether or not you want to.
Myth #2: “An Apolitical Mindset Allows You To Be Neutral And More Logical”
There is an implicit understanding that being ‘apolitical’ is smarter, more rational and more logical, because you ‘aren’t taking a side.' In contrast, people who are actively advocating for change are seen as angry, impassioned and running on a hamster wheel towards an unattainable goal. This also operates on the assumption that if you are personally affected by an issue, then your judgement is inherently tainted by your lived experience. Interestingly, Michael Satir and Kim McGuire found in their text The Lived Experience of Hate Crime that readers, and viewers, are less likely to perceive lived experiences as useful. We subconsciously believe that people who are living outside of the parameters of an experience are able to see things more clearly and make a more balanced argument. This discounts the obvious fact that lived experience is imperative to understanding how systems of oppression operate.
An interesting way to explore the assumption that being apolitical is the same as being rational, is particularly gendered. Simone de Beauvoir explored in her book The Second Sex that, ‘humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him...he is the absolute and she is the other.’ A study conducted by the Global Media Monitoring Project, an organisation that monitors the media’s coverage of women across the world, found that countries with a portrayal of political women as cunning, manipulative and emotionless, were less likely to elect female candidates. For example, when Sarah Hanson-Young, at the age of 25, became the youngest person to win an Australian seat in the Senate, she was immediately criticised for being, ‘too intense and too loud.’ Her male opponents both on late night news and on the Senate floor would specifically target her, ‘dress, body and supposed sex life.’
Writer Clementine Ford looked at nearly every article that was written about Julia Gillard, when she served as Australia’s Prime Minister, and found that the language used was overwhelming, ‘sexist in nature, from questioning [her] reproductive choices to critiquing [her] wardrobe and [her] sexuality.’ It isn’t surprising that growing up with these portrayals of women left us feeling disillusioned. It might come to little surprise that two years ago when Essential Research conducted a survey of women between the ages of 10 to 25, to determine how willing young women were to get involved in politics, it found that only 2% of girls between the ages of 10 to 14 listed politics as a future career option, and this dropped to 0 percent for women aged between 18 - 25. Zero percent.
Myth #3: “It’s Just A Waste Of Energy”
The common statement that, “we shouldn’t waste our energy, we won’t actually make a difference” is a very individualistic concept. The idea that unless we personally see the change, then why would we even try to make a change. Unless we can see that the time and effort we are investing, automatically translates into a tangible difference in a very short period of time, then why would we even try? However, the citizen is only ever as powerful as the collective, and everyone can’t be The Martin Luther King Jr or Eddie Mabo of their generation. Social media definitely hasn't helped. It has allowed movements backed by years of work, advocacy and effort, to be condensed down into one video, or one story or one photo. It has convinced us that change should be quick, fast and always within our grasp. However, we need to unlearn this narrative. We don’t need to be awarded, lauded or idolised to know that what we advocated for, donated to or supported was just and necessary.
Myth #4: “You Can Be Political But Only In The Way That I Want”
Danijela Kambaskovic, writer and academic, coined the term, ‘conscientious escapism.’ It is the idea that for some communities, their existence is politicised to such an extreme that they spend their whole life trying to disassociate from those experiences. Kambaskovis spent her first twenty eight years living in modern day Serbia, having lived through the Bosnian Genocide and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, she explained that once she came to Australia she didn’t want to buckle down and perform poetry only about the experience of being a migrant and living through war. Instead she chose to spend most of her academic life teaching Shakespeare. Here she illuminated an interesting point, about who we expect to be political and when we demand it of them.
This idea reared its ugly head during the Black Lives Matter movement, where the populations experiencing the burden of police brutality were demanded to speak out. Danzal Baker (better known as Baker Boy) an Aboriginal artist and rapper from North East Arnhem Land, was called out for not speaking out. He spoke about the exhaustion of living a politicised existence saying, ‘please think about the way you are communicating with POC around you, especially at this time...for some of you have amplified my trauma, anger and sadness.’ Just like every inequity, we must acknowledge that we place greater expectations on some to speak out and less on others, simply because their existence has been politicised in a way that does not allow them to be quiet. Their existence isn’t a tool for us to learn through. Someone taking time for themselves because the news is traumatising for them, is not the same as being apolitical.
If everyone can’t always afford to do something but everyone can afford to say something. When is it right to speak out and when it is just adding to the noise? This is a really difficult question. Rachel Cargle, a leading academic and activist in African American studies, explained that we should ask ourselves; is the information already accessible? Is it actionable? If so, is it so underreported that spreading awareness is an act of resistance on its own?
Speaking out does not need to be immediate for it to be meaningful. In How to Do Nothing: Resisting The Thought Attention Economy, Jenny Odell explained, ‘it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say.' Saying something is not a means to an end, it is simply a middle point, a point of re-education and then comes the hard work.
So, What Should We Do?
As a starting point, being political is just being vulnerable, it's an acceptance that you may need to acknowledge that there are inherent power dynamics in place. In our piece Colourism we speak about how a person can be a victim in one story and benefit from a system in another. We don’t need to be a politician to recognise that how we spend our money and what we speak about carries weight.
Do we have to check every company we buy from, every movie we watch and every item of food we eat? That’s impossible. It’s really hard, it feels disillusioning and tiring at times and sometimes I just give in because continuously checking can start to feel like pushing a boulder uphill. But we need to remind ourselves; it isn't comfortable and it isn't always easy but it's necessary. We are making these choices whether or not we actively think about it. If everything we do matters, then we need to make sure we could stand by every one of our choices.
Editor: Mariam H.