Apathy Doesn't Exist

It doesn’t. At least that’s what Dave Meslin, Civic Affairs Advocate, “professional rabble-rouser” and pointed TEDxToronto speaker asserted back in September of 2010.

“Apathy, as we think we know it, doesn’t actually exist but rather people do care but we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way.”


I tried to apply that to my own life and realized that, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s partly true, but only partly. There are actions I’ve wanted to take but have been stopped for one reason or another. I have no clue whether it was due to “intentional exclusion” as Dave Meslin puts it, but it happened nonetheless.

But while I’m sure there are obstacles and barriers in my way in some instances, there are many other forms of engagement that have been made dead easy. And there are others that I could blame on exclusion, but in reality are just me not knowing enough about the issue, that claiming there are barriers would just be shifting the onus from myself.

Which leads to a common criticism of the ‘apathy doesn’t exist’ charge. Does claiming that apathy doesn’t exist just give us the ability to blame someone else for our non-engagement? Let’s look at some stats before we make that call.

In a study entitled The Democracy Project it was found that the following six concerns were the most important to Canadian youth.

  1. Cost of education (22%)

  2. Education in general (16%)

  3. Drugs (8%)

  4. Crime and Violence (7%)

  5. Health Care (5%)

  6. The Environment (5%)

Admittedly, these stats are old (2006) and the website doesn’t seem to be up anymore but it isn’t the stats that are important at this moment; it’s the fact that there are stats that’s important.

If there are stats then that means youth, even “apathetic” youth, responded to a survey designed to gauge apathy. Ironic? A little. So what prompts us to respond to a survey but not vote or volunteer or donate?

Is it the barriers and obstacles in our way as Dave Meslin suggests? I’m guessing this survey came to the respondees via a website, email or even a good old-fashioned door-knocking so there are very little potential barriers that could deter the engagement needed when compared to making an educated vote or finding a cause you’re passionate about. So it’s probably not a fair comparison.

Instead, we could move on to the lackluster turn out to voting polls this past election where one could easily argue that apathy is alive and well.

But let’s bring the microscope a little closer to home where, if we’re looking at the Alberta Capital Region, over 800,000 of us donate to charitable organizations and over 500,000 of us volunteer our time and skills.

So are half of the population gifted with some barrier/obstacle smashing gloves the rest of us do not have? Fascinator hats, possibly. But no gloves.

I can’t speak for all charitable organizations but I’m pretty sure most would agree that making engagement as easy and integrated as possible is pretty high on the to-do list for our industry. We recognize that everyone gets involved for different reasons and in different ways and so what works for one group may not work for another.

So, if you have a few minutes and want to contribute your thoughts, ideas or suggestions on this topic, you can start right here. Tell us what you think we’re doing right or what we could do more of. Tell us ways you’ve been engaged in the past that has worked for you. We’re always eager to listen.

Smashing barriers is our business, let us help with that. Together, we may just wake someone up.

Jeremy Bibaud is Manager, New Media for United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and does not currently own a Fascinator hat but IS fascinated by them.