In Defense of Apathy (1)

This is the first post in a two-post series.

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One of the words that was stolen from us long ago and is today abused for purely ideological purposes is the word apathy

In the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, the word apathy was often used to name a positive character trait. By that ancient usage, apathy was an ideal one had to work hard and diligently to achieve—a virtue to be applauded. Starting in the eighteenth century, however, usage of the word flipped completely over, making apathy into something negative, a vice to be scorned and condemned. 

That negative usage certainly still prevails today. Accordingly, what apathetic almost always means in contemporary common usage is “lazy, indolent, uncaring.” As such, it is a defect of character: a vice, not a virtue.

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 After public elections, and especially since the 2016 national presidential election, the large number of those who, though eligible to vote in such elections, do not to do so, is often discussed—and bewailed. Such non-voters in 2016 are estimated to have made up 42% of the vote-eligible population, far more than actually voted for either of the two main Presidential candidates. 

Such non-voters are almost always labeled “apathetic” with regard to voting. That is not meant as a compliment. In being so labeled, those who do not vote are being faulted for not voting, castigated for it. To call them “apathetic” is to accuse them, by the application of that term alone, of somehow failing to fulfill their civic responsibilities. They are depicted as being irresponsible in choosing not to participate in the electoral process.

Buried—but for that very reason all the more operative—in the very application of the label “apathetic” to non-voters is thus the idea that all citizens  granted the right to vote, should do so. Such labeling implicitly assumes that the reason non-voters did not vote was because they were “indifferent” toward or “uncaring” about the whole voting process and its outcome. It assumes that they were “uncaring” about the issues involved, or at least did not care enough to overcome their “indolence”—their “laziness”—to bother to get up, get out, and vote.

So what’s wrong with that analysis, one might ask?

Well, more than one thing is wrong with it.  There are many things wrong with it, in fact. However, I will only consider two, one in this post, and one in the next.

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One thing wrong with simply dismissing all non-voters as apathetic, in the common contemporary sense of indolent or uncaring, is that it washes out important differences between various segments of the non-voting populace. For example, there is an important difference between just not bothering to vote out of lack of interest in anything beyond one’s own selfish concerns, on the one hand, and not voting because one is depressed and discouraged by what one perceives, rightly or wrongly, as the lack of any genuine difference one can make by voting, on the other.

In turn, neither of those two descriptions fits yet a third possible case, that of those who, angered by what they perceive as, in effect, the rigged nature of the whole electoral process, actively refuse to participate—who cast their clearest vote precisely by not voting.

Right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President of France in 2007, defeating the Socialist candidate, Sègoléne Royale. Sarkozy held that post until 2012. Then he was himself defeated in his bid for reelection by François Hollande, who was the Socialist candidate that year. 

On March 14, 2012, almost two months before Hollande’s election, French philosopher Alain Badiou held a session of his two-year long (2010-2012) public seminar on what it means “to change the world.” In the course of that session Badiou expressed his dissatisfaction with the entire electoral system that produced what he took to be the absence of any real choice. Badiou regarded the differences between the final two candidates who emerged from the selection process as relatively minor when compared with the fundamental support both gave to the same underlying status quo, which neither called into any serious question.  Given what he regarded as such mere pseudo-choices, at one point in the seminar session at issue Badiou remarked with bitter irony: “It is most felicitous that we have the Left, it would be very sad if we didn’t: one would have no choice but to vote for the Right.” *

             Five years later, in the next French presidential election in 2017, Hollande was replaced in turn by relative political-newcomer Emmanuel Macron, the current French President.  Not without reason, Badiou was among those who regarded the choice between Hollande and Macron as even more vacuous than had been the previous one between Sarkozy and Hollande. In an interview with French journalist Aude Lancelin, Badiou no longer even bothered to joke about what he saw as the meaninglessness of the whole electoral process. "That’s why,” he remarked to Lancelin, “at the end of the day, the only reasonable camp in the whole affair has been the camp of those who abstained. At least they didn’t take part in the bitter farce.” **

Those who abstain out of such disgust with the emptiness of the entire electoral process may be mistaken in their judgment. There are certainly those who would try to convince such disgusted ones against abstaining from voting. Nevertheless, the decision to abstain on such grounds as Badiou articulates is not the expression of mere indolence, as is implied by lumping such protesting abstainers together with all others who do not vote and calling them all apathetic without discrimination. Abstaining in deliberate protest does not mean that one does not care about the issues that are themselves at the root of politics and political decisions. Rather it is an expression of caring about those very issues, even caring intensely—so intensely that one refuses to participate in any process that reduces them all to no more than the equivalent of lines in a farce. Deliberately refusing to vote for such a principled reason reflects anything but apathy, in the dominant contemporary sense. 

Disgust, revulsion, and condemnation are very different from lack of concern.

“If you didn’t vote,” it is often said, “then you have no right to complain about the election results.” But if one honestly thinks that the whole electoral process is a manipulative scam, then it is by voting that one gives up the right to complain about the results: If one knows that a game is rigged, but chooses to play it anyway, then one has no grounds for complaint when one loses.

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To be continued.


*Alain Badiou, Le Seminare—Que signifie “changer le monde”? 2010-2012 (Fayard: 2017), page 228 (my translation).

**Alain Badiou, with Aude Lancelin, Éloge de la politique (Flammarion: 2017), p. 122 (my translation).