What precedes community

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

Last week, Nov. 4 specifically, the U.S. held the midterm general elections. By 11 p.m. it was obvious that the Republican Party would regain control of the U.S. Senate and expand their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here in Ohio, all of the statewide elections also went to the Republicans—margins ranged from 45 percent to 13 percent. By all accounts, nationally and here in Ohio, it was a hallmark victory for the GOP.

This should, however, be taken with a sort of caveat. In Ohio, turnout for the elections sat somewhere around 38 percent. Here in Cuyahoga County, predictions were marginally better—40 percent. Nationwide, it looks like this election will match previous elections at around 41 percent.

In other developed democracies around the world, turnout rates are better on average. Germany sits at about 85 percent. France averages 76 percent. India, even with a massive population, reports 66 percent turnout. Brazil, another large country, has 83 percent. Of course just comparing these numbers is a large simplification. Some countries make voting compulsory, others only hold elections once a year. But in general, the United States suffers from one of the worst voter turnout percentages in the world.

This points not just to apathy in regard to politics, which many people argue is true. Instead, it indicates a lack of community and a sense of involvement with the rest of the world. For many, university students especially, the world of politics, conflict and anything other than daily work, food and sleep is a foreign concept. When our world clashes with that one, it’s abrupt and conflicting.

One prescient example of the two worlds colliding occurred two weeks ago. By now, most everyone should know about the racist comments made against protesters on campus. For those still unaware, during a demonstration as part of a “National Day of Protest,” students from a number of minority rights groups walked throughout campus at night chanting, arguing against police brutality. The protests were triggered by the allegedly improper shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Whatever your views on the subject (and many, including me, have strong and competing views on the veracity of parts of the movement), all must admit that the protest signified an uncommon instance where a part of the campus engaged with the outside world.

However, the responses that followed illustrate the discomfort. While many students sat silently in their rooms, others took to social media to support or attack the demonstrators. Some now-famous messages compared them to animals and used other offensive language. The visceral responses illustrate just how hard it can be when our idyllic world clashes with that outside our ivory tower.

Students on college campuses exemplify the kind of apathy that causes discomfort. In the past few weeks, students were annoyed or offended by the protest, by Young Americans for Liberty’s free speech wall, by voter outreach efforts and more. Although these were simply attempts to bring students back into the real world.

Unfortunately, this might be our own fault. Students tend to dissociate from the outside world. We stop listening to the news and start to care about the latest hashtag or viral article on Facebook. This sometimes results in the delivery of information, but often blinds us to what’s really going on. How many students know what is going on in Ukraine right now? I could imagine most know that Russia invaded the country a couple months ago? But would most realize that two other provinces are voting to secede, and that Ukraine is using their own military to keep the country together? How about here at home? While the internet is abuzz with Ebola, what about other diseases that kill millions? What happened to net neutrality? Where did the outrage over the NSA go?

The country as a whole is driven toward these short bursts of interest in small issues. This is only exacerbated with students. Too often, students have their heads in a book or computer, oblivious to the outside world around them. Oblivious to the struggles that other people are facing. Unfortunately, this outlook creates conflict. Not just between us and the outside, but after graduation, students who have been immune to news for the last four years are once again inundated with it.
Presently, our immunity raises generations of people comfortable with being apathetic.

We shouldn’t exist in an environment where the response to “Who are you voting for” is “Who’s running?” There shouldn’t be an option to say “What is that?” when asked about the ongoing conflict in Syria. “I don’t care” shouldn’t be in our vocabulary.

Apathy is a dangerous thing. We can complain about the lack of community or tradition at Case Western Reserve University, but that ignores the larger issue. Students are apathetic. Apathetic students become apathetic adults. That has to change. So, although some might have been startled by the protest, although some might have been offended by statements on the free speech wall, the efforts are for the better. They should continue and become more common. If people will not learn themselves, those of us determined to better our community and world should speak louder.

Andrew Breland, senior, is a weekly Opinion columnist. Contact him at awb69@case.edu.