Up until not too long ago I wasn’t exactly what you’d call political. I’d never written a letter of complaint in my life, I’d never called my local MP (or had any idea who he/she was), I’d never really protested, marched, rallied or even sent an e-mail in anger. I was as likely to be watching the live stream of Big Brother as I was the news and I was pretty sure that John Major was a brand of cigarettes.
In a lot of ways I was the caricature of the apathetic youth; that harsh, unfair stereotype pushed by people in power to dismiss an entire generation. It’s unfair because I was disengaged but never apathetic. And I think back to all my friends who were disinterested in politics then, and who are still disinterested now, and not one of them is simply uncaring. I am yet to come across the person my age who is simply unmoved by issues like poverty, employment, inequality, education, climate change etc. So the problem isn’t the lack of feeling, it’s a lack of action. The question then is why does one not naturally follow the other? I asked people why they weren’t more engaged and I thought about my own experience and the answer that kept cropping up was, “what’s the point? It doesn’t change anything.”
What’s the point?
I’ve come to realize that these three words are toxic and embody some of the most damaging and successful propaganda that we’re exposed to in our society; the idea that we’re alone, isolated and powerless, and so there is no point in worrying about anything but our own interests; an idea that encourages greed, rampant, out of control consumerism, detachment and the destruction of the environment.
Now I was lucky enough to learn, through no fault of my own, that we’re not isolated and that collectively people can change things. Through the unpredictable events of my life I have been fortunate enough to encounter some amazing and passionate people working hard to achieve social goals at home and abroad. Through their work and their successes I realised that we’re not powerless. We are a force for change with unifying goals that can be, and indeed have been, achieved in many cases when we come together and engage.
But we live in a world where that fact can sometimes be hidden from us. A world where we are never taught in our schools about how to engage in a democracy or made to believe that it’s our responsibility as citizens. We’re told we should show up every 4 years and vote but we’re not taught how to lobby our politicians like companies are, or how to organise protests or how to make our voices heard.
It took me over 20 years, a full time job and a degree before one day someone asked me why don’t I write to a locally elected representative about an issue that I was passionate about. The thought had never crossed my mind. Politicians and the powerful were always presented as being so far removed from me that the idea felt like ringing up Jay-Z for a chat. And these are people who are elected and paid by us.
Not only does society not talk to young people about how to get engaged but we also don’t talk about the victories of that kind of engagement either. One evening recently, as I was on my way to a meeting for a movement against homelessness, a friend of mine asked me: “What’s the point? Social movements don’t change anything.”
At that moment I was instantly struck by the irony of my friend saying that, while he was on his way home after an 8-hour workday -something that previous generations had to fight tooth and nail to get and which was by no means a given. Change is presented as something which is so far beyond us and power structures so strictly defined that we can fall into the trap of forgetting the victories we have already had and the power that we wield. We forget all this, so we don’t act. We’re taught to think “What’s the point?” and it works as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Change is Slow
For the above reasons our outlook is pessimistic but it shouldn’t be; it just needs to be more realistic. This world has seen incredible change but we have to remember that change is rarely, if ever, massive and instantaneous. Collectively we can create wonders but those wonders take time.
Society’s achievements are cumulative. Our entire civilisation has been built incrementally. Maths, science, engineering, art – all our works are built step-by-step, one tiny, seemingly insignificant, contribution after another. One person grunts, another grunts in a slightly different tone and this continues for thousands upon thousands of years until millennia later, we have words and writing and law and democracy and all the other great works which are predicated upon language. None of these achievements would have existed if the 1st people had regarded their monosyllabic and apparently meaningless grunts as we regard our actions today. What if they too had thought, “What’s the point in grunting? No one ever understands me and I’ll be long dead before they ever come up with languages.”
Even in our media we regularly watch films and read stories about heroic individuals. and who changed the world like Gandhi or Dr. King Jr. but we’re rarely exposed to the less sexy truth: change comes from the cumulative effect of countless articles, letters, marches, meetings, riots, rallies, discussions, songs, paintings, stories and 1 billion other actions – actions which were taken by people who are no different to you and I and which must have seemed so tiny and insignificant at the time but without which there could have been no change in the world.
Through our action we can make power accountable. Infinitely more oppressive institutions like slavery, racism and tyrannical monarchies have been significantly weakened and almost eradicated from far less powerful positions. We exist among a handful of people in human history who could say and do what they want without being dragged off into the night. You think we can’t get our leaders to commit to reducing greenhouse gases, or scrapping tuition fees? How do you think black slaves in the US felt about their potential for attaining freedom? Or the idea of one of them becoming President?
So act! Write, call, lobby, talk, protest and, most importantly, vote! Change is slow and incremental so never be disheartened if you can’t change the world alone because you’re not supposed to, and you’re not alone! Never hesitate to take a step because you think what’s the point? Every letter of complaint, every angry word and every phone call will be backed up by 6 billion others once you can reject the narrative of powerless individualism that we’re fed and become conscious of the truth: We’ve already changed the world a thousand times over. We are not isolated. We are humanity. And our works are cumulative.
By Amro Hussain, action/2015 Youth Panellist
For more information on the action/2015 campaign and youth click here. The action/2015 Youth Panel is co-facilitated by British Youth Council, BOND, Islamic Relief, Progressio and Restless Development and Y Care International.