7 Barriers to Engagement for Positive Change in Society

Dave Meslin, activist/journalist and founder of the Toronto Public space Committee, has some thought-provoking ideas on what prevents people from engaging in creating positive world-change.

He argues that it’s not a lack of interest or caring. It’s not that people are lazy, selfish or stupid. But rather that it’s simply because there are obstacles in people’s path… something is too big of a pain in the butt or seems impossible or even obscured so we don’t think about it. I agree that this often happens.

Here are some obstacles with which he illustrates:

1) City Hall
Governments are known for often communicating unclearly. Consider public notices such as ones posted in newspapers. Typically small fonts, a vomit of information and bad formatting. Imagine if Nike, for example, communicated in the same manner. But they don’t, and why? Because naturally they want their target audience to buy.

If government and other similar orgs want target audiences to buy-in, we would see more notices that are simple, clear, obvious what to do to take action.

2) Public Space & 3) The Media

Another obstacle to engagement for the masses. Think billboards, signage. Whoever has the most money has the loudest voice. Because many good messages are not profitable to share, they often are not.

With the Media, it’s similar. Celebrities, scandals etc. are sexy content. Reviews typically give “If you go” details. Causes and politics coverage tends to be less, with fewer details on how to get involved. The implication is that audiences want entertainment, but not so much be engaged in their community.

4) Heroes

There is often an emphasis in stories on somebody chosen as “the one” and then saving the world mostly by themselves, albeit with help from sidekicks. Mr. Meslin believes this sends the wrong messages of what leadership is all about and that a heroic effort is a collective effort, voluntary, imperfect, unglamorous, typically doesn’t suddenly start and stop but is usually ongoing, comes from within, about following your own dreams uninvited

5) Political Parties

The idea here is that political parties tend to be “uninspiring,” alike and tell people what they want to hear at the expense of bold and creative ideas. People can smell it and it feeds cynicism.

6) Canada: Charitable status & 7) Elections

Here Mr. Meslin describes how charities in his home of Canada cannot perform advocacy, which denies a voice to many of the most passionate, and that elections “are a complete joke” and “votes don’t count in Canada.”

Added altogether, he concludes that of course people are apathetic, “it’s like running into a brick wall.” He posits that solutions include opening up city hall, reforming electoral systems, democratizing public spaces. He believes that to do this we need to redefine apathy not as an internal syndrome but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement, and identify and collectively dismantle obstacles.

My take:

It’s a great discussion, though I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support most if not all of the claims.

-City Hall obstructs involvement, yet recently I personally had a flyer on my door clearly inviting me to come to a city planning meeting the next week to discuss potential changes to my road and they wanted resident feedback.

-“Votes don’t count in Canada” – that’s it? Nothing to support this?

-Nobody is inspired by political parties, which don’t have creative bold ideas?

-Heroism is always collective? etc.)

I believe some of the problem with these is also a function of motivators (don’t expect a government to care about things nobody asks to be changed and is simply not a big deal) because in a free-market, there is usually motivation to supply what is demanded. And much of these are a result of inadequate demand. Let’s face it: life is hard and folks need a much larger supply of inane memes than they do of worthy causes.

How do we increase demand? I believe that people gravitate toward degrees of self-actualization as they have more free time, resources and knowledge of how. This is the thinking of cognitive surplus. In a broad sense I agree with Mr. Meslin and add this: let’s make “worthy” things more palatable so there is demand for them, and governments, media etc. will supply it.

I’ll throw out one example of a solution: technology. As technology proliferates and is cheaply accessible, as it becomes increasingly sophisticated and wondrous, as people learn to utilize it better… then it means needs are more transparent and easier to share. It’s incredibly motivating to watch a video on modern slavery that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It means people tend to collaborate more and connect better over causes that are important to them. It means good things are put on a competitive playing field with sexy profit-driven products, services, or media because there’s somebody out there who took the time to make that inspirational video or quote-picture. Technology feeds demand, demand feeds supply, supply feeds engagement.

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