“Lazy entitled narcissists who still live with their parents,” reads Time Magazine’s latest assessment of you, me, and everybody else born in the last 25 years. In the court of our forebears’ judgment, our generation seldom fares well. Even the titles given to our cohort come sealed with derogatory intent—‘generation me’, ‘generation Y bother?’. The second quip hits on the most common theme of critique: that we are apathetic. An easy contrast is established, playing off the apparent radicalism of 1960s and 70s students with our timid passions. These inter-generational slanders are shallow, vague, and ahistorical. But the worst thing is, they’re not entirely wrong.
“To socialists with clipboards:Yes I do support equal marriage but I’m afraid my single signature on your piece of paper isn’t going to be the thing that makes a difference…But by all means keep annoying everyone and never learning. Having a group on campus that everyone hates just brings us all closer together.”
The above is a status update posted by the indefatigable ‘Spotted: USYD’ Facebook page. Without meaning to, it transcribes perfectly the special kind of apathy many of us have developed. It’s an apathy shaded by cognitive dissonance: we want to hold the moral high ground without having to do anything about it. We want to support marriage equality, acknowledge the dangers of global warming, and help striking staff without having to inconvenience ourselves in any way, without ever attending a rally, reconsidering our consumption of fossil fuels, or joining a picket line. We want to feel good about ourselves for being on the right side of the argument, without doing anything to ensure the argument is won.
So we make the ‘Spotted: USYD’ excuse. We acknowledge the problem, but disown the groups trying to solve it. Disown is in fact too weak a verb as, in truth, we assail them with disdain, exultant in our assasination of their character, style, or tactics. Such denunciations often come with an adjoined excuse: “if it wasn’t for these people, I would support the cause.”
This is the point where legitimate debate becomes nothing more than an excuse for laziness. Criticism and dissent within a social movement are vital to its growth, but there is a marked difference between dissent and abstention.
Don’t give up on the ends to spite somebody else’s means. If you think petitions are impotent, take action of some other kind. But if you don’t, if you refuse to strive for an end because of a disagreement over the means, don’t outsource the blame when the end remains unrealised. It’s not the socialist with the clipboard who is to blame for that, it’s you.