Two unrelated events from last month have given some renewed food for thought. One was the temporary Facebook ban and the other was a British Council survey of the youth (15-30 age group). A third of the survey sample was students. The survey found, among others, that 74 percent young people are not interested in politics; only 15 percent of youth think student politics is a good thing; and only 1 percent belonged to a political party.
Neither the Facebook ban nor the findings of the British Council survey came as big surprises. The growing influence of Facebook and other social networking sites and search engines are almost destined to attract troubles from governments in many countries on one ground or other. Among our neighbours, China, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka had implemented controls at different levels based on their own peculiar concerns. Weaker regulatory framework, fear of unknown socio-cultural impacts of a fast moving technology, shorter history of democratic practice, and propensity of knee jerk reactions often impair governments’ judgement while dealing with objectionable web contents. An unexpected 37 percent of the respondents in a Prothom Alo online survey (30-31 May), who themselves are internet users, had actually endorsed the government decision. Though it is not the topic of my discussion, it would be interesting to know what the 37 percent respondents had in their minds.
The second event, the British Council survey findings were even less surprising than the Facebook ban. We know about the growing level of political apathy among the new generation; the survey validated that fear. The generation of the 60’s who spearheaded national aims and aspirations is now only a matter of glorious reminiscence. In a span of 40 years the same age group has denigrated into becoming preachers of our civic duties.
There have been researches on the causes of the massive shift in attitude of the youth and the students. For some, students are generally non-conformist and are more vocal in societies with restricted freedom. As the restrictions on freedom ease, so do their vigilance. For some others, students are more often left-leaning and the rise of leftist political ideologies in 60’s and 70’s and their fall in 90’s had direct correlation with the rise and fall of student politics.
A third view was given by a reputed leftist leader on a television talk show. He thought the changes in global politics, and socio-economic realities in the country have caused a significant shift in the way that the youth perceive its role in society. They no longer believe that individual, as a constituent of the collective, can benefit through a process of upholding collective interests. As a result, there is an absence of interest on issues affecting the collective. They rather prefer an individualised short-cut solution through the existing system. Even if the system is unjust and unfair, they believe there is sufficient scope for individuals to insulate from the adversity and extract the solution they want. There have been success stories where individuals had managed to eke out the best through this process. Success stories inspired others.
But the education they pursue, the career the cherish and the association they embrace reflect the individualised solution they look for. This individualistic approach gives them a feeling that politics is irrelevant. These, accompanied by the negativity attributed to the political culture in the country, provide them with a sort of justification to become apathetic of politics.
The British Council survey sampled 2,157 men and women aged between 15 and 30 belonging to seven occupations. They survey did not talk about the causes of the apathy; it only confirmed the presence of the apathy. After the British Council report, I was interested to know what the Facebook users thought about politics. Interestingly, most Facebook users fall within the same age group though their backgrounds are different. . A randomly picked public profile of 100 young Bangladeshi Facebookers (26 years old on average) showed that while they were more open to talk about their favourite music (68 percent) and favourite movies (53 percent), they were very reluctant to talk about their political views (39 percent). Not only that; one third of those few who mentioned their political views made cynical, vulgar and sarcastic remarks about politics.
The popular perception is that the youth is distancing itself from politics due to the current state of politics in the country which is marred by violence, corruption, cronyism and bitter party politics. Political parties’ are also blamed for not doing enough to include young generations’ agenda in their political mandate and activities.
Society’s reaction to such a major problem has been mainly limited to blaming its political institutions and walking away from the fundamental responsibilities in shaping the attitude of its constituents. Erroneous diagnosis of the causes of the apathy has left the society clueless about its next move. Take another piece of Facebook statistics from the same 100 users — 61 percent of the sample Facebook users had not mentioned a single Bengali song in their usual list of 10 to 20 favourite music numbers. Bengali music is rich, one of the richest in the world, and for long has been supplying the bread and butter for Bengali souls. It shows that even the best of the best that the society has produced is not immune from apathy of a section of the youth. Using the music analogy, it is possible to argue that political institutions are excessively blamed for creating political apathy. Apathy may be a social trend spanning across different sectors, and politics is only one of them.
Politics in Bangladesh, is in trouble and we are not helping it recover. We have seen the caretaker government blaming politics for virtually everything. The achievement was more apathy towards politics. It may be already bankrupt. Adding apathy on top of it will make it bankrupt and orphan. Once it is orphan, Taleban type fathers will come to its rescue.
What does the temporary Facebook ban tell our new generation? It gives them a mild wake up call. It tells them that they may try to create their own domain for pursuing happiness, yet there is no way to escape from politics. Politics will continue to affect our lives whether we like it or not. Facebook ban is just a token example. There have been and there will be other serious government actions that can significantly affect our rights, liberties and pursuit of happiness. Political apathy will mean that we will be mere spectators. It is through political consciousness and willingness to stand for collective causes that we protect collective interests, and thereby our own individual interests. As the new generation, be the owner of politics, shape it in the way you want it to be. If you decide to be just a spectator, do it at your own peril.