07 November 2006

apathy and cynicism

I've been asking my students about the elections: whether they are registered to vote, whether they plan to vote, whether they know the names of who is running, and so forth. In general answer to all of the above is: "No." My informal survey indicates that only perhaps a little over 10% of my students will vote.

Among our philosophy majors, I grant, most do vote and have an awareness of candidates and issues. But philosophy as a major tends to attract a crowd who find value in what others might regard as arcane and who think that the big questions of life - questions concerning values, purpose, the common good, and so on - are still meaningful questions worth discussing.

So I spent some time asking my non-voting students why they don't vote or even seem to care. The answers are familiar: "My vote doesn't matter." "The candidates are all pretty much the same." "Voting isn't going to fix anything." "I've got better things going on." "It's a waste of time." "They make it too much work - why can't we vote online?" The answers range from apathy to cynicism and back again.

I wish I had something intelligent and insightful to say about that. But I don't.

I'm sure part of the difficulty is simply a youthful paralysis in the face of options arrayed in nearly indistinguishable shades of gray. Yet, there's something deeper (and still more shallow) to this detachment from the electoral process that I can't fully articulate - perhaps a kind of middle class nihilism. Does such a nihilism empty our choices of value and render elections, wars, government, and even "freedom" as fraught with ambiguity? Why vote for a candidate who is, at best, deeply flawed when the bright (even if ephemeral) clarity of choosing a new tune for the iPod awaits?