The Antidote to Apathy – From Indifference to Making a Difference

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One of the perennial questions for change agents is how to get people engaged.

Often, it seems, people just don’t seem to care, or are unable to see either a self or collective interest in becoming active participants in change.

In ‘The Antidote to Apathy’, Dave Meslin talks about how what is considered apathy, selfishness or laziness is in fact the result of actively discouraging engagement by creating obstacles and barriers to participation and involvement.

He gives the example of how we treat changes to things like zoning applications which may be of great interest to a local community – yet they are announced in obscurely-located notices written in bureau-speak. To highlight the absurdity of what we’ve come to regard as ‘normal’, he contrasts this with what it would look like if the private sector took the same approach:

 Imagine if Nike wanted to sell a pair of shoes and put an ad in the paper like that:

mock up of Nike ad to look like a boring planning notice, describing the shoe for sale

Taking the inverse and applying Nike’s approach to planning and rezoning, Meslin thinks the ads would be more effective at garnering involvement (or at least awareness) if they looked like this:

colourful ad announcing building proposal with images, sources of more information, contact details and an invitation to express an opinion

Meslin considers other barriers are that leadership has become synonymous with the ‘hero’ narrative, conveyed to us through popular culture – that the responsibility for change falls on certain individuals, with the support of some others. Yet change is a collective heroic effort and leadership comes from within, not through being ‘ordained’.

Interestingly, the Occupy Movement was criticised for not defining an agenda or having an identifiable leadership – yet this was a deliberate strategy, both for empowering those involved, but also perhaps to prevent offering a visible leadership target to forces intent on derailing the movement:

One thing we’re trying to break in this society is the sentiment that making change simply lies in delegating a task to another person, whether it be through an online petition, an email, elected officials, or anyone else…The OWS community is very aware of the mechanisms used (to) co-opt grassroots movements. The leaderless decision making process acts as a defense against the threat of co-option. A leaderless decision-making process might have disadvantages (for one, it can be slow going), but it has a key benefit: there are no leaders to bribe.

Meslin believes how our public spaces function (or malfunction) hinders involvement because the loudest voices – usually those with the most money – dominate the cultural space, thereby excluding others’ perspectives or contributions.

Indeed, Adbusters – the Canadian nonprofit that sparked the Occupy Movement with their ‘Tactical Briefing’ in mid 2011 calling for people to ‘Occupy Wall Street’ – have called for ‘an insurrection of the mental environment’ as the future of activism, with the article’s tagline stating that ‘mental pollution is not just an annoyance; it is a tool in our oppression.’

Another barrier cited by Meslin, arguably endemic to many countries today, is that people are disenchanted with and disengaged from formal political processes:

Political parties (have) 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.

He also notes the way the media reports on political issues is another barrier, contrasting the example of a theatre performance review in a newspaper – which includes information on when and where the performance is, how much tickets are – with articles on campaigns which have no follow-up information or references to online information to find out where activities are occurring, how to get involved, who to contact.

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.

Despite all this, Meslin is optimistic that if we look more closely at what appears to be apathy, recognising it as a ‘complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement’ rather than a personal characteristic of individuals, we can work together to dismantle those barriers and open up possibilities for active, rather than passive, democracy.

I think there are a few important barriers Meslin didn’t touch on in his presentation:


The Wikipedia definition of apathy describes it as:

…a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion…in positive psychology, apathy is described as a result of the individual feeling they do not possess the level of skill required to confront a challenge. It may also be a result of perceiving no challenge at all (the challenge is irrelevant to them, or conversely, they have learned helplessness).

diagram of states plotting skill level along x axis and challenge level along y axis - apathy is at bottom left (low skill level, low challenge) - clockwise from there are worry, anxiety (then into positive states) arousal, flow, control, relaxation (then back to negative states) boredom and then back to apathy

In order to move out of apathy, people’s skill levels, such as knowledge of how to participate and become involved, how to have a say and to influence, needs to increase. Also, their understanding of issues may need to be developed before they see a challenge as relevant.


People who have just negotiated the workday obstacle course which may include one or all of the following: rush hour commute, grocery shop on the way home, collecting kids from school or care, cooking dinner, supervising homework – are not lazy or apathetic. They are time-poor and often exhausted. Even if they do have a couple of free hours in their day, they might need it for rest and relaxation, not active mental and physical participation.

If we want people to be more active participants in their communities, we will have to make some decisions as a society about changing how we value and use our time.


Closely related to time is convenience – how easy are we making engagement for people? Time-poor people are less likely to be turning up to a scheduled consultation session, especially if its at the Town Hall on a Tuesday night, and its raining. But they may well be active in social media – it’s not a substitute for offline engagement, but if the only opportunity a busy parent or professional has is to offer input online at 11pm while in their pyjamas, then surely that’s better than no input at all?

A discussion I had today with two representatives from the South Australian Police (SAPOL) revealed that their Facebook presence had allowed the gathering of ‘crowdsourced intelligence’ which had led to a large number of arrests. Although interacting via Facebook is not quite the same as becoming actively involved in change or campaigns offline, it is an indicator that – given an opportunity – people will become involved in public issues.


People may be protecting their limited energy through choosing not to become involvedeven if they have an interest in the issue. It may be because previous experiences have left them jaded and unwilling to invest further effort. It may simply be that there are only so many hours in the day.

There will always be some people who have made a deliberate choice to disengage for any variety of reasons. But if we want to dismantle barriers to engagement and participation, we will have to create the time, space and energy to better enable people to do so.

Do you think people would be more likely to participate in public life if it was made easier for them to do so? Or do you think people are truly apathetic?

What other barriers do you feel are preventing people from becoming involved in any kind of change or initiative in the public sphere that they might otherwise participate in?

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  1. What would it be like if we could register our political desires and opinions online in a way that could communicate what we want to others, both to our representatives and their challengers, as well as to each other? Instead of thinking of it as “public opinion”, think of it as more of a vote and communication. You could change it or refine it as your opinion develops and you see what others want. It could be fast, easy, and a starting point for finding information and getting involved. And we’d finally know what we want, and know what to hold our politicians accountable for. And they could both legislate with confidence instead of seeking the safety-of-numbers that parties provide, as well as communicate with us via such a site.


  1. […] August: delved into the role of music, poetry, photography and sculpture in The Art of Change, and sought to determine whether apathy is really apathy in The Antidote to Apathy – From Indifference to Making A Difference. […]

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