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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
My generation—generation Y (or is it “Why?”)—is told all the time that it is apathetic, politically disengaged and generally lacking in motivation. Personally, I’m sick of being chastised for my apathy, especially when it comes from members of my own generation. With their heads held high, their chests puffed out with pride, their fingers pointed, they self-righteously imply, “Well, I’m doing something. What are you doing to save the world?”

Apathy has come to mean either knowing the problem and giving up in the face of apparently impossible odds, or knowing the problem and not giving a shit about it. In both cases “apathy” is interchangeable with “selfishness.” But in both cases that’s total nonsense. “Apathetic” does not equal “selfish,” although I’ll admit there is a link between the two. We’ve just got it backwards.

Could it be we’re “apathetic” not because we are selfish, but because we’re told that we should be selfish, that we must be “driven,” “ambitious,” “successful,” bent on personal accomplishment and sensational distinction? Maybe most of us appear apathetic because we’re encouraged to be so self-centered, and for socially-minded, moral beings like ourselves, this is unnatural. So, the natural response to being conditioned to be selfish is to turn away from that view of life, and to turn away from the rest of the world that constantly tells us it’s all about us.

Let me get at this in a somewhat roundabout way. On TV, in magazines and on the bus, we see ads for schools that promise a quick and easy way to get the job we want and how to be a great personal success in it. School should be a place where, to quote Simon Fraser University’s slogan, “Thinking about the World” ought to be the main activity.

Instead, colleges, universities, and the proliferating trade schools increasingly appeal to our selfish sides, encouraging us to “get ahead”, to find our “calling”, in short, to think of no one but ourselves. "Don’t think about the world, focus on yourself", is their chief message. It’s you that matters. Want to be a chef? A designer? A dentist? Grab a brochure. Call the toll-free number.

Received wisdom and modern, cynical rhetoric has it that we are all, at the core, selfish beings. We never really act for other people, says the reigning philosophy. At best, so the thinking goes, we act within the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours system of mutual benefit and reluctant reciprocity. At worst, altruism is a vicious, deluded lie, and deep down we’re all deceptive manipulators looking for hidden rewards. This is only realistic, we say. It’s just the way things are. And so we casually resign ourselves to “the fact” that people, at heart, are all about themselves, and that they’re responsible to no one else.

There is, to be fair, a small grain of truth in this pessimistic, ego-centered view of human nature, but that grain is buried deep in a pile of crap. Over the last three or four decades, during the era of Globalization, economics has dominated political discourse, reducing questions of art, culture, social justice and public life in general to the superficial, quantitative realm of commercial interactions. Even Bill Clinton, who, compared to (how many days left now?) George W. Bush, was a pretty socially progressive president, campaigned on the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

You could say we live in an age of assumed egoism, where the unattached individual is free from all obligations towards society, responsible only to themselves and their personal finances. We even pretend like it's a good thing. This is what we mean by “freedom of the individual”: the right to be left alone, to focus on our private life, to be selfish.

This assumed egoism, as I call it, so crucial to the rhetoric of economic determinism and Globalization, is fundamentally insulting to human dignity. Only an elitist sociopath like Conrad Black (or Margaret Thatcher, who famously declared that “society doesn’t exist”) could embrace such a misanthropic view.

Normal people with a sense of ethics, on the other hand, can’t help but react apathetically to such anti-social conditioning. Apathy, in this case, means refusing to go along with the dominant message, refusing to conform, refusing to embrace greed, refusing to deny that society actually does exist, and is important.

Being told that we’re all egoists and only egoists is simply not natural for naturally social and moral creatures like ourselves. We know, consciously or unconsciously, that as an individual we’re not all that important. We instinctively feel that others, and by extension society, are just as important, if not more important than we are, and if we think about it for one second we realize that we’re nothing without them.

“Apathy”, therefore, is a noble rejection of constantly being told that you should be selfish. That is, in a culture where personal ambition and greed are virtues, apathy expresses the frustration with the lack of meaningful avenues for social participation, public service, and personal sacrifice. Strangely enough, in a world of self-destructive capitalism, it’s apathy, not greed, that is good.

We’re also told, especially as students, that if we really want to “make a difference in the world” we should join an NGO and fight for social justice somewhere on the other side of the planet, rather than get directly involved in formal democracy here at home. The implication is that, if the political system has failed, you have to fight it, subvert it and break it down from the outside.

NGOs and today’s activism in general, despite doing a good job of recruiting young, idealistic and energetic youths, relies on spectacle and personal heroism. It doesn’t really matter that they fight on “the good side” because they’re still centered on the self, on personal distinction and individual triumph. And so, again, apathy is not a surprising response. Because activists and NGOs often use the grandiose language of “heroism,” “strong leadership” and “revolutionary changes to the system,” for ordinary citizens these standards are far too romantic and impossibly high, and are therefore completely discouraging. And we wonder why most young people are so apathetic: the problems are daunting, yes, but the solutions are even more so.

In a democracy it should be a normal part of everyday life to feel connected to politics. Instead, political involvement is seen as radical and heroic, or, conversely, elitist, stuffy and inherently corrupt. In other words, anything but normal. But Aristotle was probably right. Politics is an innate part of being human. That’s why when we’re told that it’s all about you—special you—and nobody else, we become apathetic. It’s only natural. It’s only human.


This article originally appeared in The Republic of East Vancouver, issue of March 13 2008 to March 26 2008 - No. 184
Responses:

Alamir
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Comments

Alamir

Alamir

Interesting take on apathy. I think as far as the advertisements to make society less apathetic, you're right. Many of them try to target our selfish desires. I can't blame them completely, because the reasonable way for tackling someone who doesn't care about anything is by telling them why they should care at the very least. Like Puff Daddy's (AKA P.Diddy) appropriate voting motto: "Vote or Die." Many people would rather laugh at the simplicity of his message, but it was probably the strongest argument: "If you don't vote for Kerry, the Iraq war will last longer, many of you will die." And sure enough, people still didn't care. And many died.

but what exactly is the other side? If a person who signs up to be an NGO is selfishly doing it for "heroism" then what would be an unselfish reason? And would that unselfish reason lead to less apathy? For example, would signing up simply due to some unselfish sense of duty be the answer? Would that lead to being more empathetic?

Apathy means: Not caring.
Selfishness means: caring for oneself mostly.
Empathy means: Caring for someone else.

Yet are these terms mutually exclusive? Do they need to be? Can't feel both empathetic and selfish and resolve the two by being empathetic for selfish reasons, like giving charity to feel useful?



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