In recent years, I’ve noticed a trend among young adults towards cynicism and apathy.
Given that so many of us were children on Sept. 11, 2001, who, prior to that day, had never seen that scale of violence so close to home, it is not surprising. Compounding this is a wave of tragedy and misfortune. The United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, baptizing a generation in the tides of war. In the waning days of 2008, the economy tumbled into a deep recession. Gun violence claimed lives in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. And partisan politics stymies progress in Washington.
All of which has left a generation disaffected and cynical, leading others to mourn earlier, simpler times.
I do not cling to idyllic, pastoral memories of the past. In ways, communities were more closely knit and did not face the scale of violence seen today. However, there was rampant discrimination against Franco-Americans, Irish, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans, severe segregation of African-Americans, gerrymandering, economic disparity and persisting persecution of the LGBT Americans. A far cry from the sepia tone daydreams of an America that never was.
Time has passed but not discrimination. However, the face of the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last 60 years. Even though many hardworking, honest Americans faced challenges daily and had every right to sink into a pit of apathy, they did not despair. Rather, they declared loudly that things must change. They persevered and started movements, declaring all men and women are created equal, and thus, should be treated equal.
Recent OpEds in the BDN by Sandy Butler and Nancy Kelly and Bettyann Sheats highlight that Margaret Mead’s adage holds true that it is ordinary “thoughtful, concerned citizens” who must make change, be it LGBT rights or addressing corporate negligence, in the name of improving the community. But individuals face big odds and challenges in working for change. The lack of faith by many in individual action is symptomatic of the cynicism of our age, and it’s an unsustainable outlook.
To temper the tides of apathy in our society, I say: if you see that change is needed, but no one is acting, go and change it. Earn the right of change by the sweat of your brow, and by example others will follow. If they do not, persevere. Real change at its heart requires action and reflection. This is especially true on the national or global scale. Look at the Civil Rights Movement: It began in earnest in 1955 and brought about the Civil Rights Act in 1964 after a decade of struggle. It required the nation to confront the ugly drama of segregation and ask, “Is this right?” A shift of consciousness occurred.
Great things happen when people get together and see the need for change and act. The recent Employment Non-Discrimination Act found immense support, even in unlikely places. ENDA provides protection for LGBT workers, who do not have to fear termination of employment based on sexual orientation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and member of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and also a member of the LDS church who initially opposed ENDA, both re-examined their beliefs and decided providing security to a population of Americans was a necessary change. While not a paradigm shift, it shows that both men were willing to engage across partisan lines in self-reflection and take action, rather than stay cemented in their ways and not act at all. Yes, when it comes to LGBT rights, much work remains to be done and ENDA is far from the last word.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” Gandhi said. Be requires that we act for change standing, not ask for it sitting. It requires that we lead by example, whether or not others follow. Urging us not to wait for tomorrow but begin today. Often we are not motivated to change until a moment is pushed to its crisis. By then it is too late. A crisis should not be a catalyst for change, nor should political ineffectiveness and the swirl of violence extinguish the light of hope.
Simply, we must discover the motivation to change and see that apathy must not become antipathy to change.
Christopher Burns is an undergraduate in English at the University of Maine and contributes to The Maine Edge and The Maine Campus.