We are a nation forever aching to be numb. According to a Nielsen report last July, Americans collectively spend 10 hours a day on electronic devices. We swipe up and down and left and right in search of witty memes, perfectly framed and filtered photos taken by someone we’ve never met and never will, liking this and liking that, clicking the bait that corporate CEOs plant on every single website we access every single day, engorging their already overflowing wallets as we feed the beast. One hundred and eleven million people gathered together to watch a nationally televised sporting event last month, but on November 8th, 90 million people sat out the vote in the general election. Why is it we are more than willing to digest mere entertainment en masse while neglecting our most important civic duty as citizens of this country?
I believe that it’s because we are more apathetic and disengaged from one another than we’ve ever been in our nation’s history and as a result of that apathy, we elected a supremely unqualified, narcissistic clown to the highest office of power in the United States.
Robert D. Putnam wrote a brilliant breakdown of the disappearance of civic engagement in America back in 1996. Putnam found that from 1965 to 1985, membership in community groups such as the PTA, Red Cross, the Elks club, and labor unions was down by 50 percent. Surveys also showed collective political participation down in huge percentage points from the 1970s to the 1990s. The major culprit of this communal disconnection? Television.
Technology began “privatizing” our lives in the 1960s when suddenly, a majority of Americans owned a television set and more and more time was spent in isolation instead of community. Twenty-one years after Putnam’s analyses, the realities of this disappearing civic engagement are even more stark. With the advent of the smartphone, 24 hours a day news cycles, and constant social media scrolls, we are more disconnected from human to human contact than we have ever been.
In 2017, television is the very least of our myopia, the very base level of our disengagement from the world around us. Social media has taken the crown. During this last election cycle, simply scrolling through one’s Facebook feed was an incredibly telling exploration of our current obsession with entertainment over reality, apathy over action. The onslaught of ‘Make America Great Again’ and the never-ending coverage of the Clinton email debacle from big media networks and their subsidiaries provided a ceaseless supply of click-bait headlines and what we now, tirelessly, recognize as fake news. For nearly two years we set up camp with our side and vilified the other, screamed our opinions and concerns, digitally rallied behind our collective hopes and fears. We did all of this in private, behind our screens, out of sight. But then, on November 8th, we had the opportunity to be heard, in the flesh— and 40 percent of the eligible voting population did nothing. They stayed home.
Now, this obviously speaks to larger, systemic problems. Among them, voting is still too difficult for too many Americans, and we need to remove those roadblocks immediately. There is a widespread, national distrust of government and its ability to administer real change or speak to any American save the wealthy and well-connected. We are in desperate need of a third, independent party in this country. The candidates in this last election were deeply flawed; the Clinton campaign failed at reaching struggling, out-of-work Americans while Trump ran a campaign based on fear, racism, and flat-out lies. Now, we are more divided than ever before and the proliferation of protests around the country since the election of Donald Trump is a clear indicator of that division. With that said, apathy is obviously not the sole reason for our civic disengagement; but it is, I believe, the most insidious.
If we are unwilling to engage, change will never occur. If we continue this dangerous practice of privacy versus community, we will never organize. If we are more willing to spend 10 hours a day looking at a screen than at each other, our capacity to empathize will continue to erode, taking with it our ability to see the struggle of our neighbor and any desire to learn from it. This individualistic, narrow approach to life in the 21st century will only ultimately widen the already fractured discord that exists between us. If history had chosen the current neoliberal model of the individual as its most important subject, we would never have achieved any of the progressive civil rights and societal shifts that we cherish today. If we had only ever chosen our own self-interest over the community as a whole, we would be perpetually stuck in the past.
When we look at the Women’s March that took place in Washington on January 21st and the subsequent marches all over the country and around the world, we see the result of organization and action. When we mobilize, when we get off the couch and into the streets, people take notice. The powers that be can only ignore a mass movement for so long. But if we do not shed our apathy, we will never move.
Let this be a lesson to us all — the time has come for us to begin looking at each other again and to throw the selfie out the door. And after we open that door, let us walk out into the streets, talk to one another, learn from each other, find common ground, and demand real change in a time we so desperately need it.