Redefining Apathy

Dave Meslin, a “professional rabble-rouser,” gave a TEDx talk in Toronto last fall. His concern is that voter apathy has less to do with people being selfish, stupid or lazy, and more with the system creating barriers to participation.

Dave Meslin calls himself a community choreographer, a term I find as endearing as his notion about the dynamics of political disengagement. He identifies seven barriers that make it difficult to participate in local politics, including:

  • City Hall—An example of “intentional exclusion” is the overly verbose legalspeak in documents that make it difficult and uninspiring to take action. Meslin drives home his point by showing a retail ad with the same treatment.
  • Public Space—We sell it to those with the most resources, rather than reserving it for the most important issues
  • The Media—With movies, plays and other forms of entertainment, articles often include easy-to-find information about how to take action (e.g., a time, place and location of a show). In political coverage, there is no such follow-up opportunity.
  • Heroes—A quick rundown on popular movies shows a pattern of heroes being chosen. This creates a myth about leadership that discourages the uninvited dreamer. In reality, being heroic is a collective effort that is voluntary and imperfect.

He wants to redefine our notion of voter apathy as this complex web of barriers. By doing so, we can more easily identify and dismantle those obstacles.
redefine apathy as complex web of barriers

Meslin’s talk is a reflection of his practice, which includes a number of creative ideas to combat political apathy. He has run a candidate version of American Idol to pare down a field of politicians to support, and his Better Ballots coalition is a citizen movement that focuses on problems with elections (low turnout, low turnover, lack of diversity, and lack of fairness).

Related: David Bismark has an idea for secure electronic voting that is verifiable and transparent.