Agency vs. Apathy

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Barely half-way through the grand Election Day 2008 for the United States of America, I’ve heard and participated in countless arguments about voting. A close friend of mind was going to skip voting today for one excuse or another, but we dragged him down to the polls (this is not metaphorical), made sure he registered, and then sent him in to cast his vote for whatever candidates he supported. Not minutes ago, two librarians here at the University of Maine Farmington were in a yelling match about a woman who refused to vote. “If it doesn’t affect my life, I don’t care. Her apathy affects my life!” one of them said sternly. This brings me to an interesting thought.

Voting is a form of Agency. No, not something like the Central Intelligence Agency, but more or less our ability to cause change. Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searles Giroux in their excellent book “The Theory Toolbox”, explain agency by quoting the American Heritage Dictionary and then saying:

” ‘We cannot ignore human agency in history’. We cannot ignore, in other words, the fact that people create history by doing things; history is made rather than found. Subjects have agency — the ability to respond to their historical contexts and, with any luck at all, change them in the process” (p. 193).

We are all Subjects in the grand scheme of things, at the mercy of the classic forces of “Nature” and “Nurture”, e.g. genetic dispositions and our environment, social atmosphere, and learnings. If you live in Western society, or now even almost any industrialized area in the world, you are also forced into the role of “consumer” — something that may even define your entire identity. Politics on television and the main source of our knowledge of the rest of the world coming from this medium, as well, has in my opinion changed things drastically. While we have always been subjects, for my entire life at least, I always thought everything I saw on TV would always stay that way. Even though I was fascinated by watching documentaries about other parts of the world, or listening to politicians speak, the “Real” world I was shown by TV was there and nowhere else. As of recently, I met two famous politicians — Howard Dean and Tom Allen — and the world that I was growing suspicious of shattered. I realized, utterly consciously, that they were real people. I realized that even though it was just a few words, a shake of the hand and a photo, I influenced their life.

Thus we get to the importance of Agency. Some scientists, on the far end of “nature”, think that a great deal of our behavior, even emotional and seeming unique personal expressions, are based entirely on genes. And everyone knows that if people important to you are all buying a certain product, you’re likely going to be the next one to buy it. If being a Subject and Subjectivity seems overwhelming, as if there is no way you can influence the world and take a stand, assert your willpower, that is where Agency comes in.

Voting is a form of Agency. There might be 300 million citizens in American, but each and every one of those citizens has a say in what happens. There may be cynics who reference that corporations and lobbyists have bought out our government, that the power is out of the hands of the people; but listening to them is losing your power and nulling your agency. Voting is a right in America, and a democratic system as functional as ours isn’t too common any other place in the world. To refuse to vote for some excuse or laziness is losing your precious say in the government. It ought to be a proud thing to do, considering that the institutions that we are most subjected to have also given us a say in their existence. This is one of those surefire chances to assert your will and hold up the shield of Agency. No one that refuses to vote will ever make history; if they do, it will be because they were swept up by the people who took action.

This boils down to a few things. Thinking that your vote doesn’t matter won’t cut it. If just a thousand people nationally think that “What can one vote do?”, then they have all handed over their power and become victims with no say in things. The less people that vote, the less the system works. If only 50% of the voting-age citizens vote, than policies and changes affecting the entire country are being decided on by only half of the country. This is unfair. By not voting, a person is letting his or herself be subjugated by forces that are wrongly believed to be larger and more powerful than him or her. The librarian has a lot of sense in the words, “Her apathy affects my life!”. A noble political cause will go nowhere if no one takes action to vote for it, and it creates a quasi-feudal sort of system in that the citizens (serfs) are subjected to a government (ruling class/lords and nobles) that can easily and immediately become unjust and unruly. In this case, however, it’s not as though the Serf hasn’t the right to rebel, to vote for change and speak up against the ruling class — it’s that the Serf, so disconnected from reality and made helpless through nonaction, decides that it’s not worth the ten minutes of his or her time to vote and free himself from subjugation because someone else will do it for him or her, or because the Serf is just wholly apathetic. This is a type of thinking that doesn’t support life and the ubiquitous value of “freedom”. Someone not voting because of laziness damn well affects me: my power is limited by their apathy and the ultimate power over the nation is held in the hands of the few.

We have seen how this plays out in the merging of corporations and the explosion of capitalism. It ought not happen with control over our very livelihoods: we have the agency to change!


One thought on “Agency vs. Apathy

  1. Sweet, Tyler, you’re on word press. It’s awesome to see that you’re writing on here, keep it up!

    And it’s so funny you recounting our story on here from today. Great stuff.


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