Some Duke University students are studying civic apathy in, of all places, Zebulon. That they will find apathy there is undisputed. In fact, we suggest they could have chosen virtually any community in North Carolina and had little or no trouble finding plenty of apathy.
It is astounding to us, the number of people who choose not to participate in their own governance. Oh, sure, people are quick to holler, shout and spew invectives when their government does something they don’t like. They will show up to a meeting long enough to give elected leaders a piece of their mind. But often as not, they barely slow down heading out the back door of the meeting room after they’ve spoken their piece. Even less likely are they to respond when the government invites them to participate in the decision-making process.
In some respects, we think people deserve what they get. With technology what it is today, meeting agendas are readily available at the touch of a fingertip. People can scan those agendas to see what might be happening that concerns them. We doubt very seriously that many people do that. Just this week, we attended three public hearings. Only two of them drew any comments from anyone other than the applicant and those two were supportive comments from residents who attend nearly every meeting.
Many is the meeting we’ve attended at which the only people in attendance were the elected officials, the local government staff and a reporter.
The question the students are trying to answer is how can apathy – the state of not caring enough to take action – be rolled back. If the students find an answer to that question, Zebulon will certainly be glad it held itself up to the microscope.
In terms of civic engagement, our communities are full of people who volunteer their time and talents. In that sense we are not apathetic. But in terms of understanding how the decisions our local governments make affect our daily lives, well, we are a train wreck.
Apathy is a costly illness. Our communities are not alone in suffering the ill effects of apathy. But we can and should do better.