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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 to 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, that people do care, but 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. Let's start with city hall. You 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 neighborhood knows what's happening. As you can see, it's impossible to read. You need to get halfway down to even find out which address they're talking about, and then farther 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. (Applause) 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 with the planning process, otherwise their ads would look something like this -- with all the information basically laid out clearly. As long as the city's putting out notices like this to try to get people engaged, then of course people aren't going to be engaged. But that's not apathy; that's intentional exclusion.
Public space. (Applause) The manner in which we mistreat our public spaces is a huge obstacle towards 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 that there are 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.
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 feel discourages engagement. And I'll give you an example: the Now magazine from last week -- progressive, downtown weekly in Toronto. This is the cover story. It's an article about a theater performance, and it starts with basic information about where it is, in case you actually want to go and see it after you've read the article -- where, the time, the website. Same with this -- it's a movie review, an art review, a book review -- where the reading is in case you want to go. A restaurant -- you might not want to just read about it, maybe you 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. It talks about the candidates -- written very well -- but no information, no follow-up, no websites for the campaigns, no information about when the debates are, where the campaign offices are. Here's another good article about a new campaign opposing 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. And 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.
Heroes: How do we view leadership? Look at these 10 movies. What do they have in common? Anyone? They all have heroes who were 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 one. Number two, 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 a prophecy, they're missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within. It's about following your own dreams -- uninvited, uninvited -- and then working with others to make those dreams come true.
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, 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. (Applause)
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 our elections.
As you may have noticed, our elections in Canada are a complete joke. We use out-of-date systems that are unfair and create random results. Canada's 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 all this up 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 that, as I 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 neighbors, 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 systems. 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 define, we can clearly identify, what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.
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Local politics -- schools, zoning, council elections -- hit us where we live. So why don't more of us actually get involved? Is it apathy? Dave Meslin says no. He identifies 7 barriers that keep us from taking part in our communities, even when we truly care. (Filmed at TEDxToronto.)
Dave Meslin is a "professional rabble-rouser." Based in Toronto, he works to make local issues engaging and even fun to get involved in. Full bio »