Citizen Action Monitor

Seven obstacles that discourage people from trying to make a difference in their communities

Public disengagement is reinforced by a complex web of cultural barriers

No 807 Posted by fw, July 12, 2013

“As long as we believe that people, our own neighbours, are selfish, stupid, or lazy then there’s no hope. But we can change all those things….We can open up city hall. We can reform our electoral system. We can democratize our public spaces. My main message is – If we can redefine apathy, not as some kind of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement, and if we can clearly identify what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.”Dave Meslin

Dave Meslin is a “professional rabble-rouser.” Based in Toronto, he works to make local issues engaging and even fun to get involved in. In the following TEDx Toronto talk, Meslin asks: Why don’t more of us actually get involved in local matters that directly impact us?

Click on the linked title to watch the original broadcast of the TEDx talk. Or watch the embedded version of his 7-minute address below, followed by my complete transcript.

Dave Meslin The antidote to apathy by Dave Meslin, filmed at TEDxToronto, September 2010, uploaded to You Tube April 14, 2011.


How often do we hear that people just don’t care? How many times have you been told that real substantial change isn’t possible because most people are too selfish, too stupid, or too lazy to try and make a difference in their community?

I propose to you today that apathy as we think we know it doesn’t actually exist, but rather the people do care, that we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way. And I’ll give you some examples of what I mean.

#1 City hall — Let’s start with city hall. Ever see one of these before? This is a newspaper ad. It’s a notice of a zoning application change for a new office building so the neighbourhood knows what’s happening. As you can see, it’s impossible to read. You need to get halfway down to find out which address they’re talking about and then further down in tiny 10-point font to find out how to actually get involved.

Imagine if the private sector advertised in the same way. If Nike wanted to sell a pair of shoes and put an ad in the paper like that. Now that would never happen. You’ll never see an ad like that because Nike actually wants you to buy their shoes. Whereas the City of Toronto clearly doesn’t want you involved in the planning process, otherwise their ads would look something like this, with all the information basically laid out clearly. As long as the city is putting out notices like this to try and get people engaged, of course people aren’t going to be engaged. But that’s not apathy. That’s intentional exclusion.

#2 Public space — The manner in which we mistreat our public space is a huge obstacle toward any type of progressive political change because we’ve essentially put a price tag on freedom of expression. Whoever has the most money gets the loudest voice, dominating the visual and mental environment. The problem with this model is there’re some amazing messages that need to be said that aren’t profitable to say. So you’re never going to see them on a billboard.

#3 The media — The media plays an important role in developing our relationship with political change, mainly by ignoring politics and focusing on celebrities and scandals. But even when they do talk about important political issues they do it in a way that I see discourages engagement. I’ll give you an example. The Now Magazine from last week, a progressive downtown weekly in Toronto. This is the cover story — it’s an article about theatre performance and starts with basic information about where it is in case you actually go and see it after you’ve read the article — where, the time, the website. Same with this — a movie review. An art review. A book review — where the reading is in case you want to go. A restaurant – you might not just want to read about it, you may want to go to the restaurant so they tell you where it is, what the prices are, the address, the phone number, etc.

Then you get to their political articles. Here’s a great article about an important election race that’s happening. Talks about the candidates. It’s written very well. But no information — no follow up, no website for the campaign, no information about when the debates are, where the campaign offices are.

Here’s another good article about a new campaign opposing the privatization of transit without any contact information for the campaign. The message seems to be that the readers are most likely to want to eat, maybe read a book, maybe see a movie but not be engaged in their community.

You might think this is a small thing, but I think it’s important because it sets a tone and it reinforces the dangerous idea that politics is a spectator sport.

#4 Heroes – How do we view leadership? Look at these ten movies. What do they have in common? Anyone? They all have heroes who are chosen. Someone came up to them and said you’re the chosen one. There’s a prophesy – you have to save the world. And then someone goes off and saves the world because they’ve been told to – with a few people tagging along. This helps me understand why a lot of people have trouble seeing themselves as leaders because it sends all the wrong messages about what leadership is about. A heroic effort is a collective effort, number 1. Number 2, it’s imperfect. It’s not very glamorous and it doesn’t suddenly start and suddenly end. It’s an ongoing process your whole life. But most importantly it’s voluntary. It’s voluntary. As long as we’re teaching our kids that heroism starts when someone scratches a mark on your forehead, or someone tells you that you’re part of prophesy, they’re missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within. It’s about following your own dream, uninvited, uninvited, and working with others to make those dreams come true.

#5 Political parties – Political parties. Oh boy. Political parties could and should be one of the basic entry points for people to get engaged in politics. Instead they’ve become, sadly, uninspiring and uncreative organizations that rely so heavily on market research and polling and focus groups that they end up all saying the same thing and pretty much regurgitating back to us what we already want to hear at the expense of putting forward bold and creative ideas. And people can smell that and it feeds cynicism.

#6 Charitable status – Groups who have charitable status in Canada aren’t allowed to do advocacy. This is a huge problem and a huge obstacle to change because it means that some of the most passionate and informed voices are completely silenced especially during election time. Which leads us to the last one, which is –

#7 Our elections – As you may have noticed our elections in Canada are a complete joke. We have out-of-date systems that are unfair and create random results. Canada is currently led by a party that most Canadians didn’t actually want. How can we honestly and genuinely encourage more people to vote when votes don’t count in Canada?

You add up all this together and of course people are apathetic. It’s like trying to run into a brick wall. Now I’m not trying to be negative by throwing all these obstacles out and explaining what’s in our way. Quite the opposite. I actually think people are amazing and smart and that they do care. But as I’ve said we live in this environment where all these obstacles are being put in our way.

As long as we believe that people, our own neighbours, are selfish, stupid, or lazy then there’s no hope. But we can change all those things I mentioned. We can open up city hall. We can reform our electoral system. We can democratize our public spaces. My main message is – If we can redefine apathy, not as some kind of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement, and if we can clearly identify what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles then anything is possible.

 Dave Meslin: Artist and Organizer

Why you should listen to him:

Multi-partisan and fiercely optimistic, Dave Meslin embraces ideas and projects that cut across traditional boundaries between grassroots politics, electoral politics and the arts community. In his work, in Toronto and globally, he attempts to weave elements of these communities together. (His business card reads “Dave Meslin: community choreographer,” which feels about right.)

Some of his projects include 2006’s City Idol contest, which put a sexy new face on council elections; co-editing Local Motion, a book about civic projects in Toronto; and Dandyhorse and Spacing magazines. And he’s part of the Toronto folk/indie collective Hidden Cameras, using their worldwide touring to research voting practices in the cities where they play. He recently founded the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT).

He blogs at Mez Dispenser, or find him on Facebook and Twitter, where he’s @Meslin.

“For those who know Meslin, the real question is whether or not he will ever run for mayor. “I don’t think so,” he says. “Maybe for councillor, but I wouldn’t run under our current voting system. … For now, I’m getting more accomplished outside of City Hall than I could from within, and I’m having more fun.”” National Post

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I claim no ownership of such materials. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

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This entry was posted on July 12, 2013 by in information counterpower, leadership, political action and tagged , .
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