Nowadays, after watching the news, I can’t help but find myself imaging that we are in the midst of a political furore exacerbated by divisive polemics; witnessing manifest displays of rage and steadfast allegiance from left to right on political issues whereby the loudest opinion wins. Yet, despite all this yelling and opposition upon the political scene, I can’t help but notice a sense of silence, a sort of youth lethargy and resignation upon current issues. Cultural theorist Mark Fisher argues that compared to the 1960s and 1970s, British students seem to be politically disengaged, not merely because of laziness or apathy but ‘reflexive impotence’: the understanding that things are bad, but being reduced to passively observe the state of affairs due to feelings of disempowerment. It seems so striking that we would be stuck in a stupor of ‘reflexive impotence’ when a lot of what is happening in politics will affect us directly: changes in the economy and job opportunities abroad due to Brexit, an epidemic of mental health amongst the young with insufficient health resources to help them through it, and raises in student debt: only last year the conservative government raised interest to 6.3% on student loans – and this seemed to be met with uncomfortable resignation. We appear to be in a state where our future is being compromised by elder generations, and instead of expressing the confusion, we are solely internalising it, resulting in anxiety, insecurity, hopelessness and worst of all: passivity. Where is our collective voice when the problems arising appear to be coming directly for us?
The first thing that comes to mind when reflecting upon youth passivity is social media. No doubt, social media has provided a platform for those who could formerly never have the chance to be heard – twitter allows us to connect directly with politicians, and blogs and posts allow each individual to share their own take on political and social issues. However, as I said previously, the political scene is loud and divisive – with each political issue there appears to be only two, broad, simplified arguments to it. This increases the likelihood that one’s opinions will be aligned with that of one political camp over another: Remainer or leaver; Alt-Right or Alt-Left; neo-Nazism or communism; #metoo or misogyny. The middle ground and rational analysis cannot thrive on social media in comparison to emotive rhetoric and extreme opinion which connects people together in political oppositional groups. It is harder to assert one’s own opinions when the norm is to subscribe to one or the other’s set of political beliefs, and when to start with, the information surrounding the issue on the news is projected as amplifications of either side’s rhetorical opinion. Where is the engagement with the truth over feeling?
Another cause of the sense of youth silence may be the domination of identity politics in the west. First, identity politics has been vital for representation and inclusivity in politics through providing a platform and sense of connection via the multiplicity of different identity movements to minority groups. However, the ultra-liberal wing of identity politics, popular in many western universities, particularly in America, can be said to be more divisive than connective in its extremes, as it shuts people out from engaging with the political discourse from those who do not belong exclusively to the identification of the group. This may be difficult for those who embody and subscribe to several different identity categories instead of subscribing rigidly to a set definition of identity, and it also creates extreme political sensitivity and therefore fear of being incorrect. This may lead to safe silence rather than engagement and full-understanding of the issues surrounding them regardless of their identity.
Another social media factor connected to the ability to voice our own demands or even get a clear picture of what we may think on an issue is the incessant bombardment of advertisement. Its equation of the pursuit of material pleasure to self-fulfilment and happiness is highly problematic. We are constantly being told to ‘want’ things and to better ourselves via product marketing, promoting a culture of narcissism and insecurity. I believe that the outcome of this is that youths are focusing their energy inwards rather than outwards to external goings on. Mark Fisher calls this mood ‘depressive hedonia’: the ‘inability to do anything except pursue pleasure.’ This would best be exemplified with the rise of the ‘selfie culture’. i.e. using a camera to take a picture of one’s own personal beauty rather than capturing the beauty of the external world. The normalisation of the promotion of our individuality online means that we are constantly comparing lives to others online, ironically making us less individual as we succumb to generalised online norms and trends as to what we should look like or think. The impact of this is severe, for example with the trend of surgical enhancement promoted by the Kardashian Empire, there has been a large increase in face-altering cosmetic procedures with young women. This reveals how the fleeting ideals of beauty have led to long-term physical transformations in many young people – showing just how susceptible we are to try to fit to these idealisations that create lots of money for beauty enterprises. How are we supposed to create our own opinions on what beauty or happiness is, when we are being constantly led by internet norms? And if we can not think clearly about these issues close to home, how are we even to set about defining our opinions on what is going on globally?
What is worst is that we are trapped in this system due to social media’s systematic addictive structuring. Addiction to these feeds of surplus information takes away our ability to concentrate on things that may be initially less pleasurable and more challenging in building a wider opinion; for example, reading. Fisher states: ‘The consequence of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated interactivity, an inability to concentrate or focus.’ This inability to focus will be having a massive impact on the way in which we can interact with profound political issues that shape our society and drive to create our own opinions separate from the media.
I realise that this article is a bit doom and gloom with the depiction of the zombification of western youth vs the cruel manipulation of a greedy technocratic elite. However, it is not as if there isn’t space nor reason to change the power dynamic. I think the best way to challenge this is not to fulfil expectations of putting all our energy into individual consumption which is thence capitalised on. We shall not build our culture as being victims of a system; instead we should push our energies outwards in search of clarity and veracity. Empowerment will be using our collective energy to confront and challenge in the search of whatever is closest to the truth; to not fear to speak openly about opinions that may not align itself to one side of a mainstream political belief; to think externally about events and question forces which encourage consumption and emotion rather than logic and rationality.
-Bethany Howard, Politics Editor
For More on this check out:
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism – Is there no Alternative? (O Books: 2009)