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Davis, California

Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: Apathetic students of UC Davis

If you’ve made it to this corner of the newspaper, you already know that a tumbleweed brush might as well be running for ASUCD Senate. Some say this is a generational phenomenon to be expected of the millennials. For years, our generation sustained criticism for its relative lack of civic engagement. But is the barren election really a function of political apathy?

To make the sweeping claim that millennials are apathetic is to argue that we lack a kind of passion for shaping society to our needs — that we don’t care. Let me entertain four ways to frame our brand of caring to complicate the reductive criticisms levied against millennials.

Firstly, we don’t want to look like we care. There’s a difference between saying someone doesn’t care about politics and noticing when folks are trying hard to signal that they don’t care. In other words, there’s a cache to looking apathetic, independent of whether you really care about any issue. If you’re skeptical of this, direct your attention outside to the roaming packs of hipsters.

Secondly, we care in a different way. But I can see why indifferent appearances are taken as underlying apathy. In 2007, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called us Generation Q — for “Quiet.” He makes the claim that the millennial generation is too quiet both “…for it’s own good … and for the country’s good.” If we are the quiet generation, this is because the old guard cannot hear the noise online.

In the past, political engagement was the only means of improving your environment. What’s different about our generation is that we have another environment, a virtual space, to disengage from reality. Social networking platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr afford one the opportunity to redesign one’s life via monopolistic control. That means you can reconfigure the constellation of links, feeds, status updates, friend requests, followers, pics, tweets and tumblrs however you like.

Our care today comes across in an alternative politics; one committed to engaging what’s meaningful in a seductively customizable environment.

Thirdly, we cannot afford to care. Students are increasingly seeking employment to make ends meet. A report in 2001 claimed that student employment rose from 49 percent in 1984 to 57 percent in 2001. And this was before Sept. 11, the Iraq-Afghanistan War and credit bubble bursting. This was before tuition increased by several thousands.

Despite the mercy of having much of my tuition covered by scholarship, I still needed to work three part-time jobs last year to afford the remainder, rent and food. I learned this year that I’m just one of many in a recent phenomenon of taking multiple jobs to make ends meet.

School already demands a sizable portion of time. Add to that employment and it’s not hard to see why you find neither students gathering petition signatures to run for office, nor students taking the time to understand the issues and candidates. Political engagement is not so much a political right as it is a privilege. To be able to run in an election, and to a lesser extent, effectively vote, you must first pay to be here, live here and eat here.

Finally, we are not as apathetic about student government as we are convinced it cannot solve our problems. The latest tuition increases charge students nearly $2,000 more in annual fees. Each student here pays about $120 annually to ASUCD through his or her student fees. Even if you were to completely dismantle the student government and refund all the money to students for four years, they would scarcely be able to use that for one month’s rent.

This is not to say that ASUCD is irrelevant. For what $120 is worth, the collective operation of student government does a lot for employing students, making resources available and ensuring a livable, enjoyable, diverse campus environment. They cannot solve tuition hikes, but they do make them hurt less.

I would ask those who speak to the apathy of our generation what they think drives political disengagement. For some, the story of apathy is about some insidious quality inherent to our generation’s character. If you can, in fact, make the claim that we don’t care, you’d be hard-pressed to separate the apathetic generational personality from an environment conducive to disengagement.

RAJIV NARAYAN doesn’t care if you e-mail him at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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