For the past six years I’ve watched a sociological shift occur in the US every two to three years.
I first noticed it at the start of 2010 with the palpable and disturbing societal drift away from the optimism of Obama’s 2008 election. At the time, I wrote an article entitled Hippies v. Hipsters: The Generation the Revolution Died? about the emergence of apathy as a signifier of coolness.
At the inception of hipster culture, their hallmark was how little they cared – about trendy clothes, popular music, anything. They were disenchanted and acting out against the perceived ineffectiveness of effort. The movement was no doubt borne from people tiring of the effort required to recognise and remedy the injustices of the world.
As inevitably happens with countercultures, within two years the trappings of hipster culture had become mainstream. Unfortunately it wasn’t just their ironic mustaches that seeped into wider culture. The hopeful fervour that led to Obama’s election was abandoned as soon as people realised they couldn’t just cast their ballots and then sit back and relax while he changed the world. Rather than continue the grassroots activist momentum that got him elected, people forfeited all sense of personal responsibility for change. Political involvement by the general public went back to being almost non-existent.
As a result, Obama spent his first term fighting an uphill battle against an uncooperative Congress while people bemoaned his lack of accomplishments without ever making a single call to their representatives, attending a single rally, or signing a single petition. The hipsters’ apathy became the nation’s.
The intervening three years have seen a wave of atrocities bring the US’s biggest problems to the forefront of public discourse. From 20 children being shot and killed at school in December of 2012 to police shootings that have highlighted the racial inequities still rampant in American society, the cracks in our society have widened into unignorable canyons.
Yet as neither legislative nor cultural changes have followed not just the first instances of the above, but any subsequent occurrences, of which there have been innumerable, outrage has given way to an almost self-righteous cynicism.
Where before those valuable members of society privy to their privilege would use their voice and power to help enact change or call much-needed attention to inequity, many now simply roll out the same sad, tired spiel for each new instance of injustice. Well, it happened again. Of course. And it will again.
The sentiment isn’t, ‘Oh well.’ It’s not apathy. They care that something is wrong, they have just ceased to believe in the possibility of change.
This is problematic. When the people in society with the ability to recognise and fully understand the historical and current contexts for such problems and occurrences become cynical, who is left to fight? Who will champion change when those who used to impassionedly share their knowledge and insight now simply look at each other and share knowing eye rolls and shrugs?
It is a new and ugly form of privilege, to have the education and understanding to recognise problems, but rather than fight against them, turn to other privileged folk and collectively shake your heads, forgetting about those whose voices need help being shared.
I first noticed this shift occurring on a small scale on my Facebook feed, as peoples’ reactions to shootings and protests went from lengthy polemics to basically, ‘Sigh.’
Then I saw Andy Samberg’s September Emmys monologue.
In January, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Golden Globes monologue included comments like, ‘The movie Selma is about the Civil Rights Movement, which totally worked and now everything’s fine.’ It was simple, poignant, and called attention to the work that still needs to be done.
Andy’s similar commentary about race and gender inequity, however, came across more like cynical defeatism than calls to action. He actually ended one bit about wage and age gaps between male and female actors with, ‘So, crappy on two fronts.’ Or, basically, ‘Sigh.’
We are in need of another societal shift, and soon. What could be next? Finally action? Or at least an optimism that change is possible. Because it is, if people choose to take personal responsibility for their roles in enacting it. Acknowledgement of one’s role is the first step, acting accordingly is the second. We saw in the grassroots-powered election of President Obama what can happen when people do so. It is up to us to channel that power outwards into action, rather than keeping it in a tightly wound circle of disheartened acknowledgement. Further cynicism will only bred continued passivity.