This quote by David Bowie (RIP) perfectly illustrates a point I want to make.
How many times have you heard this?
I’m not really interested in politics. I’m apolitical.
If you have, it’s probably by someone when you’re in the company of highly political people bickering with one another and one of them attempts to bring a third person into the verbal fray, hoping they will come in on their side and win by majority. The person instead claims to not care, that they have no interest in politics.
They might just be saying that to avoid an unnecessary feud, especially if it is between friends, but they might also genuinely lack any interest in that political topic. However, their statement is somewhat misleading in suggesting that they are not interested in politics in any way.
No disrespect to the recently deceased Bowie, but his statement in the above quote doesn’t really describe a lack interest in politics, which is what it means to be apolitical, but his unwillingness to embrace an all-encompassing political theory or declare a specific political belief. Unlike statists, he has no personal version of The Vision™ he wishes to see pushed on others by the state. He arrived at his beliefs as stated precisely because of an interest in finding out about them. What he refused to do is endorse or condemn.
His use of the word “apolitical” is commonly accepted, and I don’t think anyone really misunderstands his point, but I do believe it still misses a crucial understanding of human nature and the limitations it puts on people who want to avoid politics altogether.
No One Is Wholly Apolitical
Understand that there is no such thing as being wholly or purely apolitical. You can be apolitical about some things, but not all things. You may not care about the vast majority of political issues or, like Bowie, subscribe to any particular ideology or philosophy, but a person is apolitical insofar as what they care about, what they want, isn’t involved in a political discussion or affected by a political decision.
Aristotle wrote in his book Politics that humans are by their very nature, political animals. Politics is literally the science of “who gets what, where, how, where, and why” (when the state is involved the means to the end always involve coercion and aggression).
It is impossible to have no interest in any area of life as to the decision on this.
There are various reasons why people are fooled into thinking they are apolitical. One of them is that their political views are so ingrained in the society and so commonly accepted that it doesn’t even warrant discussion. They’re not even considered to be a political stance. It just is.
But what would someone who claims to be apolitical think about a proposal to establish a theocracy, i.e. require everyone adhere to a set of religious beliefs or suffer criminal punishment? They either are opposed to it or support it, but either view is a political stance. Simply believing in freedom of religion and speech is itself a political view, but it barely registers in many Western countries because the concepts are beyond critique. It is accepted as natural when in other countries the concept is both foreign and challenged when proposed.
I suppose someone could say “I have no interest” as to whether or not they have to comply with religious tenets or if a government wished to ban religion altogether, but this would only demonstrate they don’t care about how religion is handled politically because it has no connection to what they want in life.
Try asking them about slavery. Not exactly debated today in the halls of Congress, but go back a few hundred years and see how much the legality of slavery was the source of political strife.
What would it say about a person at that time who claimed they were apolitical about the issue?
Believing you should keep what is yours and others what theirs is a political view. Believing that you should be left alone is a political view. Believing you own yourself is a political view. Believing that everyone should be held equally accountable before the law is a political view.
If you claim to be apolitical because you are content with the current political system, that is still a political belief.
Eventually, to quote Hans Gruber from the film Die Hard, a political discussion will concern something that a person does care about, and it is then that their political views manifest themselves. They may be apolitical when it comes to other political discussions, but everyone has their own ideas as to who should get what, when, how, where, and why. The question is, on what matters do they have an interest in the outcome and process by which the decision was made?
On specifics, maybe not a whole lot, but in a general sense they have certain beliefs. Those beliefs are just taken for granted.
When someone claims to be apolitical in general what they are really saying is that their interest in politics is confined to only a limited number of issues and how anything else is dealt with is beyond their concern. As long as they get what they want or their ambitions are not disturbed, then they’re not interested in what happens. Being apolitical is another way of saying that what they care about isn’t threatened by politics, or the current political climate is supportive or it and isn’t looking to change. Their politics are decided by their own idiosyncratic set of priorities, rather than an ideology or philosophy, which means they aren’t required or desire at all to get involved in any manner with politics outside of these priorities.
People like to think that being apolitical on all matters as a general principle is taking some sort of moral high ground or maintaining neutrality as an impartial party removed from what most would say is an unpleasant and dirty system, but it is an impossibly cynical mentality to have because taken to its logical conclusion, being wholly apolitical essentially says that there is nothing worth standing up for or defending should it be embroiled in a political controversy or threatened by an opposing political belief.
Being wholly apolitical means someone does not care about anything as much as they care for avoiding taking a political view.
Now, people might claim that they are apolitical due to a lack of any kind of activism. They don’t vote, protest, attend rallies, debate, or discuss it. The problem is, this doesn’t demonstrate one is apolitical. Plenty of libertarians do none of these things, but it is because they probably don’t believe such activities will create the kind of change they wish to see. What makes someone apolitical is the lack of interest in politics, not the lack of hope.
You may or may not be interested in every single political issue out there, but sooner or later politics is interested in you or what you live for.
Tell me what an “apolitical” person is passionate about or cares about, and I will tell you just how political an animal they really are.