Some men see things as they are and say, “Why?” I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”
— George Bernard Shaw
It is easy to be apathetically indifferent. The world has its problems, sure, but hey, life is short and one should take care of oneself first, no? Yet the danger is that there are a *lot* of issues on which the silent majority is not sufficiently aware to care one way or another, and a small but outspoken minority gets to drive their agenda, because the other people who know the first group is wrong find it too uncouth to engage them in debate. To spread the word to the masses. To do something.
People have various reasons for being apathetic, and most of them certainly make sense. At the time, anyway. Life is short. Or, I know this guy is deluded on some issues, but how much harm can he/she do anyway? Or, people will come to their senses (how, if the only passionate people are on two diametric opposites, the mainstream media too busy triangulating and the moderates too indifferent to make their voice heard?). Or they believe in the “great leader” myth: mere mortals can’t lead movements for change, let’s wait for an inspired leader to set things right.
The latter is a particularly pernicious argument. Just because what you do does not have a great impact, does it mean you should not do it? We too often underestimate our potential impact. Whether negative (how much can a single SUV affect the environment anyway? Or taking those cheap flights in Europe. Or watching movies that glorify senseless violence). You’re just an anonymous consumer, right? Yet collectively our negative contributions add up to something significant.
It is the same with the positive things we can do. When you buy food from a local farm, who knows how many people are affected by your example? If stores and supermarkets notice that their customers are starting to buy up local produce, market economics dictate that they will allocate more shelf space to these produces. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Perhaps the feeling might be that meaningful change cannot be achieved within one’s lifetime. Yet is that reason for apathy? If the suffragettes became disillusioned early on, would women have the right to vote in the Western world today? If black Americans get discouraged by the post-Reconstruction setbacks, would the civil rights movement come into being?
Change does not crystallize magically once the right leader emerges. Were Stalin to be struck by lightning and decide to democratize overnight, would the system he had a hand in building let him do that? Even the most tyrannical dictator relies on a support structure, and thus is constrained in his/her (mostly his) actions. Education can work, no matter how plodding, slow and fraught with setbacks the process might seem at times.
Moral of the story? Put your efforts behind what you believe in. No matter how futile the cause might be, nothing feels more emasculating than not even talking about an issue you care about deeply, let alone doing something about it.
Personally, my #1 bugbear is electoral reform. A healthy discussion of issues is impossible within a two-party system: they are either too polarized for their supporters to talk to each other (and the center too indifferent), or in their attempt to appeal to centrists, too indistinct and amorphous. Paradoxically, they can even swing between the two at short notice. Politicians pander to the base during primaries and swing to the center for the actual election. In the end, nobody’s happy.
Or take feminism. Or anti-racism. Indifference abounds here — just because our society does not discriminate openly, does not mean that institutional discrimination does not still occur. Most women are still unfairly expected to do double duty between house and work. Yet how many of us question the way the workplace is structured, leaving most men (the traditional breadwinner) no choice but to work long hours? In the end it’s mostly the women who are forced to sacrifice career once they start families.
Affirmative action programs are flawed. Too targeted at specific minorities, and thus open to attacks on the grounds (ironically) of equality. Yet the problem is real, and even conservatives like George Will agrees. Fairness demands that we help those born with socio-economical disadvantage. That we try and make sure everyone gets to pursue the American Dream (or the equivalent), rather than using the Dream as a deus ex machina (oh look, here’s another rags-to-riches success story! (s)he can do it, so if you can’t, you must be lazy and it’s your fault).
Magic wands do not exist in the real world. Not everyone will be fêted as heroes, and no problem will magically go away. Yet is being an unsung hero so bad?