18 year old politics undergraduate Solomon Curtis is intending to become the youngest candidate standing for Labour at the general election this May. This, surely, is a good thing? Surely we want young people to aspire to change society, and to be represented along with other ignored demographics (whatever we might think of the party they've chosen)?
Apparently not. On the comment thread I saw attached to this story on social media, it was claimed he was doomed to be sucked into the system to re-emerge as a soulless monster, serving only his and his elite chums' own gain. It was assumed that he didn't know what he was doing, that he was already 'corrupted' by the system, and that, worst of all, his hair was crap.
When did we give up? When did we become so pessimistic as a society that we couldn't envision any good coming out of politics? And when did shallow aesthetic concerns trump nuanced political commentary?
This all-pervasive pessimism is, I believe, the result of an almost-always useful, but occasionally disastrous trick the human mind employs- the schema. Stick with me for a brief foray into my field of psychology. It'll be worth it.
A schema is where we take several bits of information relating to a subject (lets randomly choose: the expenses scandal, pleb-gate, and Clegg's tuition fee broken promise), and, adding any new info we incur, begin to form what a layman would term a stereotype of that subject; the French always wear stripy tops, rugby players always have mangled ears, and politicians always lie to and steal from the public. It is how we navigate and make sense of the world, allowing us to react and predict- it is vital to our survival, but can occasionally have dire consequences, particularly when more careful thought is needed.
Once the schema is set up (politicians are selfish liars), then research shows that we are heavily biased in how we process information- anything that disagrees with this schema is likely to be ignored by us. We can, however, occasionally break through our own biases by a process famous cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget called 'accommodation'. This is opposed to assimilation- where the information is twisted to fit our world-view, which is what we often do when it comes to our views regarding politicians (they're just doing that really nice thing to get votes).
When we accommodate new information about something we quite literally 'make room for it' as the term suggests, forcing our view (or schema) to change. So how do we begin to change our schemas, and more importantly, should we?
First of all, politicians need to be giving us something good to actually see. Issues like the 2009 expenses scandal and this government's appalling track-record of blatantly lying to voters, make it easy to see where our 'politicians are self-serving liars' schema comes from- if this is what we usually see then obviously this is how we'll come to view them as a group.
There are, however, genuinely good people in the Commons fighting for what a lot of us want to see change. Caroline Lucas, hardest-working MP of the year, is a perfect example of this, having fought hard this Parliament against a sexist tabloid degrading women, managed to get arrested for her refusal to back down over an issue of environmental and social justice (she won the court case, by the way), and finally securing a proper debate on drugs policy in the Commons, amongst many other achievements.
Good politicians, however, aren't enough- news of their deeds needs to actually reach us. This is where our scandal sleuthing media need to take some responsibility and actually report the good with the bad when it comes to our elected representatives. The press should have a responsibility to inform us of MP's arrested fighting for social justice just as much as those implicated in a paedophile ring- giving us the good with the bad so we can accommodate new information in order for us to be able to form more accurate schemas.
Also, an educational system that helps us understand the basics of statistics, economics, and politics would not only set us in good stead for feeling more clued in on politics (and therefore more likely to engage) but also help us spot the politicians trying to pull a fast one. This gives us a more informed and powerful operating system into which we can start forming our schemas of the world.
However, we have to start this process ourselves: we simply cannot afford to wait for the mainstream media and the Department of Education. Garnering our political knowledge from a variety of sources, particularly 'alternative media' will help ensure we're hearing a variety of stories from a plethora of angles (reading HuffPo is a good start!).
Researching our local politicians is another good way to go, so you can begin to understand the differences between them that a 30-second sound bite doesn't give you. They Work For You is a great site for that- a brilliant tool that enables you to see the activities and voting history of any MP.
But most importantly of all, every single one of us needs to engage in the system in whatever way we can, like Curtis, to dilute what corruption there is in Westminster.
By abandoning politics, many of us have forgotten how to hope. By giving up on the political system, many of us have forgotten that we can change things for the better, if enough of us fight for it. We are already seeing a renewed engagement both with the #indyref and a resurgence of youth politics- in 2015, this must expand to all ages and demographics.
It is not the idea or even the practice of politics that is deserving of our anger and scorn- it is rather some of the people, in this political system that we are living under right now that is the problem. Politics need not be a dirty word anymore- let's reclaim it, both as an institution here in 21st century Britain, and as an idea. Let us realise that there are heroes, villains, and awful lot of individuals somewhere in between and that by determining these, we can gain a direction and purpose at which to aim our anger, and actually begin to make some progress.
This year, let us all reclaim our political system, our power, and our hope. Let us all 'be political' once more.