Democracy, Indifference and the Younger Generation

The end of February brought us the death of Stepháne Hessel, one of the main ideological proponents of the movements of “outraged” citizens questioning the implementation of the democratic ideas in our contemporary societies. It is curious to see how someone born in the first quarter of the 20th century could inspire and connect so many young people. Stepháne Hessel defied the conventions that suggest that the people that inspire us are young, good-looking and very rich. Hessel was never conventional. Born in Berlin into a Jewish family the year of the Soviet Revolution, he emigrated to France in the 1920s. During the German occupation he became an activist of the French Resistance and almost paid with his life when he was arrested, tortured and, then, sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war, he became a diplomat and received several awards for his contribution to the defense of human rights and democracy. However, Stepháne Hessel did not receive recognition so much for his work as a diplomat but for his political activism. In particular, his name became popular when the book Indignez-Vous! (translated into English as Time for Outrage!) was published in 2010. Originally thought of as a small booklet at less than 50 pages, it has sold more than three million copies and has served as inspiration to the movement of “indignados” in Southern Europe (the take its name from the title of the book) and the “occupy” groups.

Hessel calls for resistance, for the rejection of a fatalism that pushes citizens into inaction, incapable of doing anything to fight against the injustices of our modern world. As Hessel was raised against the horrors of the Nazi regime, he believed that we should defend the achievements of past generations and maintain and improve democracy.

Although I do not agree necessarily with all the political positions of Hessel, I believe that he was right in something fundamental: democracy is not something that past generations created and was transmitted to us, but rather something that we all, democratic citizens, are responsible to maintain and to build. In order to do so, civic virtues, the desire to be part of the community and to contribute are absolutely necessary. We have lived in times in which individualism is considered a pillar of our society. But that individualism should be understood as the duty of every citizen to take responsibility and contribute to the community. Teaching political philosophy at the University of New York in Prague last semester, I had the chance to discuss the issues of justice and progress with a good group of our students. I realised that democratic ideals were not something from the past, and that the young generation is aware of the need to take personal responsibility for maintaining democracy. This is a very comforting feeling in the uncertain times that we are living in. As Hessel said, let’s care, indifference is the worst attitude.

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