To be sure, awareness is the prerequisite for informed action, but it's not an end in itself (or at least not a very productive one).
Yesterday's municipal election outcome was something to celebrate: The first two pledges out of our new mayor's mouth were to end homelessness and to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world. The results of the election however (especially given the issues we face as a city), in terms of turnout, were disappointing: 26%, one of the lowest on record.
Even before E-day, I was concerned by talk of "voter apathy" and "voter burnout." In making calls for Vision Vancouver, I spoke with a woman who said she wasn't going to vote, having spent her democracy budget following the US election, and despite having heard good things about Gregor Robertson from her close friends.
The fascinating and frightening thing about this (and we all fall victim to it), is that we intensely watch history making (e.g the Obama victory) over which we have no control, and when it comes to our own local municipal election, our own personal slice of existence (an election with arguably far more tangible and significant impacts over which we have far more control) we don't get out to vote.
Check Your Output
What the woman was expressing, and what I've since seen in related media coverage and even in the Facebook posts of friends in the aftermath of the election ( "I wish I had been more involved etc.") is something similar to "armchair environmentalism" a social phenomena observed in cognitive processing studies:
“...studies suggest that as people become more informed about environmental problems, their behaviour becomes more passive...supplanting one cognitive element – behaviour that may have lead to environmental action – with another – information about the environment. People thus redefine their obligations to solve environmental problems as simply being informed about the issues.” (see link below, Coppola, 1997, p.10).
If you replace "environmental" with "civic" or "democratic" we're witnessing the same phenomena. Awareness is not action, a fact that news junkies like myself need to be more mindful of. On more than one occasion I have found myself conflating awareness of issues with somehow being actively involved with them. That's where it's important to check your output. How does it compare with the information you're taking in? Is it balanced?
In a recent paper I wrote for school (be gentle, sometimes you've just got to get a paper done), titled, "The Constituents of Reconciliation" I suggested that, "Revolutionarily, and in line with Enzensberger’s vision, the prospect of decreased citizen activism and the further entrenchment of “armchair actors,” begs the need for a re-balancing of reception vs. transmission." I went on to suggest we need to re-design our deliberative environments so that they demand interaction (read the paper to better understand my use of the word "demand"). And while I offer several high-level design considerations in the paper, the most important thing I feel we need to do as a community, is to generate social capital (keeping issues local and on a scale that people feel socially obligated to take part in, rather than slipping into the easy luxury of anonymity...one of the reasons parties like the NPA are against Wards systems) and creating opportunities to experience taking action:
"Once barriers to local political and deliberative environments are cleared, the first and best step we can hope for, assuming that an engaged, educated and emboldened public is desirable, is the small scale achievement of collective action: 'When individuals have been able to use their ability to overcome the collective action problem in small settings they may then be able to deal with more complex dilemmas.' (Rydin & Pennington, p.161). Rydin and Pennington go on to cite Ostrom in pointing out that, '…when smaller units have managed to overcome the collective action problem, the marginal cost of building on that organizational base is considerably less than the cost of starting with no prior base.' (p.161).
Give the Gift of Action
And while we should be dissapointed with voter turnout this election, there are at least two (and of course far more) promising developments coming out of it:
1) Vision Vancouver and the rest of the progressive unity slate (COPE & Greens) brought A LOT of new people, young and old, from across the cultural and religious spectrum, into the political process. I saw them, I worked alongside them, and I was one of them. This was a new and diverse community that had the chance to experience taking action and generating social capital together. That base and community will be ready to act in the next election and they know they can make a difference.
2) Action is contagious: By the end of our conversation the woman who had told me she wasn't going to vote, decided she would. Just the simple fact that we had had a friendly conversation, and she knew I was donating my time for someone I didn't know too well, but that I believed in, was enough to turn her around. She said I renewed her faith in democracy and the responsibility of voting (cool!). I also had this experience knocking on doors in Little India on election day. Despite language barriers, I exchanged knowing smiles and feelings of community building, just by simply reminding people it was election day. They were positively touched that someone was reminding them to fulfill their civic duty.
To my friends in Vancouver, I hope you'll jump into the political process next time around. We've got lots of time to do whatever else it is we do in our lives. Elections are an important and increasingly revitalized (because I've been turned off by them too) avenue for making change and making our mark on the world.
Build Awareness. Take Action.