There’s no such thing as freedom of apathy

Jack May 17 January 2015

This year’s Which? University Student Survey revealed, amongst other titbits, that Cambridge is one of the most politically engaged universities in the country. From a bystander’s point of view, this news came as a surprise. If you ever make it along to a protest in Cambridge, you’ll find that attendance is usually shoddy. Indeed, most of us will walk past blithely, too engaged in our own very incredibly important business to think about what’s going on.

In many ways, this is understandable. The story on the front page shows how challenging student life in Cambridge can be, and sure, it gets tough. Tyrannical supervisors must be endured, books must be taken out of libraries, and, contrary to our most desperate hopes and dreams, that dissertation won’t write itself. But that’s not good enough.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read any ‘proper’ political theory (I haven’t), if you’ve researched all the policies, or grasped all the issues. You don’t even have to be interested in politics. Politics is already interested in you. It affects you now, and it’ll affect you for the rest of your life. With the approach of the 2015 General Election, we’re the ones who’ll be affected by an NHS that’s increasingly incapable of providing the services people so desperately need. Young people are disproportionately more affected by unemployment, and are much more likely to get sucked into low-skill, low-pay jobs, often ending up underemployed on exploitative temporary or zero-hours contracts. These, and many more, are the issues that are affecting all of us, and affecting us now.

On Wednesday, CUSU held an event in the Guildhall called ‘Campaigning Cambridge’, with the aim of getting students more involved in activism, campaigning, and to ensure that students understand the critical changes to the voter registration system. It was a brilliant event, and Jenny and I (pictured) had great conversations with many of the activists there. But even that’s not good enough. The sad reality is that no matter how much CUSU does (and having seen them at close quarters, I can safely say they do an awful, awful lot more than people seem to think), nothing will happen until we decide to care.

In recent months, the freedom of speech debate has roared on in various spheres, utterly missing the point. ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ goes the mantra, recited by well-meaning, well-read folk the world over. But, once again, that’s not good enough.

Clamouring on about freedom of speech ignores the fact that the world is out there – it’s happening, and we’re in here arguing about whether we can talk about it. But at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as freedom of apathy.

Instead of arguing about whether or not we can say something, we should be out there, getting on with doing something. The world won’t change because two (probably) men in black tie debated about it, and one of them was marginally cleverer than the other. The world will change because you got up and did something.

Obviously, freedom of speech and of expression are key to recovering from the horrific events in France over the past week, and in understanding the motivations of those who perpetrated them. But it has exposed so much more about us as people. The march in Paris was the largest public demonstration in that city’s history, and Cambridge has seen its own rally, too.

The terror enacted against Charlie Hebdo has shown us that when it really comes down to it, we do still care. People still gather in their masses to show support, solidarity, opposition and frustration.

Now that we know that it’s what we do that has real power in situations like these, why on earth do we spend the rest of our time doing nothing?