One question has been driving much of my thinking lately: what is the best way to communicate the value of “politics” to people who consider themselves apolitical? What do you say to people that argue, often very casually, “I’m not really into politics.” I’ve found that many students who are hoping to enter seemingly non-political careers such as business, media, entertainment etc., for example, think that “politics” is a phenomenon that is very distant from their lives and interests—something that goes on in the faraway, bureaucratic world of Washington, DC, but bears little connection to their personal and professional career trajectories.
I’d like to open up a space for public inquiry here—what have you done to communicate the value of politics to others who consider themselves apolitical?
In my own dealings with this quandary, I’ve found it best to bring politics down to the level of “everydayness” as much as possible, communicating to apolitical others how buying a t-shirt, a cup of tea, or even their favorite album can all be political acts—supporting whole systems of equality or inequality that are hidden from us in our everyday doings (and per Kenneth Burke’s wonderful aphorism that “every construct is a destruct”). I try to talk about “power” as much as possible, particularly how “power” is who gets to speak in society—which means that we are all implicated in influencing or being influenced by forces which help or hinder both ourselves and others in everyday life. I try to raise (following Henry Jenkin’s findings on promoting civic engagement among youth) issues that are “immediate” and “involving” for the person I’m talking to—have they had any trouble with healthcare lately, or potholes in the road, what about noisy neighbors?—these all bring up civic issues that relate to our everyday lives. There are many more examples, but what I most try to do is expand the definition of “politics” for people so that they can start seeing the political in the seemingly “nonpolitical” (in Barry Brummett’s terms—perhaps talking about how race is politically negotiated in Wayans Brothers films or two white teenagers in the suburbs listening to Eminem—in moment to moment acts of negotiating meaning that wield influence for ourselves and others). Per one of my favorite theorists, Stanley Deetz, I try to also communicate how all information is political and sponsored, even the front of a “Trix” cereal box is political in occluding its means of production and sheer coma-inducing sugar content (not to mention its fostering of childhood obesity). As Deetz and others such as Stuart Hall have argued, the sanitized, supposedly neutral word “information” hides political dynamics in social life—that is, “information” really puts us “in-formation.”
Paradoxically both simple and difficult to answer, this is, I believe, an enduring interdisciplinary question that we all have a significant stake in. Think of the number of vital political issues (e.g. civil rights, human rights, health rights etc.) that might be left unaddressed by future generations who think politics is “out there” rather than “right here.” We should do everything within our power to find novel ways to communicate and translate the value of politics to others who consider themselves apolitical. What means/methods have you used for communicating the value of politics to others who think they are apolitical? –Don Waisanen