Apathy Is Old News.

It’s long been fashionable particularly among young people to regard social activism and politics as something to be avoided, something messy and too rigged or corrupt to occupy our time.

We might regard the whole thing as much ado about nothing, a strange overcomplicating of ideas far more simple than politicians and pundits would have us believe, making compromise itself seem more alien than we ever thought possible.

We may yet have resorted to another kind of indifference, a kind that initially seems valid since it at least reflects a basic open-mindedness in considering both points of view.  Nevertheless it hints at an unwillingness or insecurity in standing up for what we truly believe.

In his book On Tyranny, author Timothy Snyder puts it best.

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also a citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.





-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

This may remind us of our current political landscape and those in high office who’ve routinely reinforced notions of fake news along with a general hostility toward nuance and complexity and facts.

Politics is indeed complicated and for the most part it always has been, primarily because there are so many of us, each coming from different backgrounds and occupying our own sphere of personal experience.

But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. It requires us doing the work in educating ourselves and listening to other perspectives–listening, that is, but still ultimately making a decision.

On that note, in this election we saw a greater turnout than ever before and it’s enough to convince me that the type of apathy I described may be turning into something of the past, to the point that anyone still falling into that “morass of indifference” seems not only impractical but passé to the point of looking silly.

Still, it’s important that our rising passions and renewed enthusiasm don’t lead to recklessness.  In this age of social media it can be particularly tempting to speak out on a cause more for the sake of saying something or simply conforming to sudden popular opinion and less because we truly believe in it or have done a good amount of investigating, critical thinking and listening ourselves.

Such oversight can lead to an increased state of tribalism where each of us places less value in facts and objectivity than we do in our side being right.

We must remember to be vigilant for the breakdown of objectivity both in our society and in ourselves.  Our allegiance belongs to facts and to understanding the truth as completely as possible, not to our own egos.

To that point, what’s particularly troubling is the continued prevalence of cable news in our society, which is without question the main culprit behind the ever-increasing divisions in our country.

These programs, mere talk shows masquerading as news programs, are far less beholden to the rules of journalism than to those of television and ratings; where they’ll report the news for a minute, and then open the floor to pundits and spinsters who occupy the next 20-30 minutes essentially telling us what to think of it.  As if we don’t have that ability ourselves.

“Viewers don’t want to be informed.  Viewers want to feel informed.”

Chet Collier, one of the original founders of Fox News

They’ll call themselves news programs but what they really are is propaganda providing less information than entertainment, reinforcing the things they know their audience wants to hear–indeed a far cry from the quickly fading journalism of the David Brinkley/Walter Cronkite mold anchored in facts and reporting before opinions and personalities.

It’s what we get when journalism becomes less a service than a business–content in which there is ultimately no liberal or conservative bias, but merely a money bias.  A business run by people who know where their audience stands and what it likes, and so naturally they keep playing the information that will keep its attention.

In this way they’re no different than most forms of entertainment.  Of course, the more serious problem is their continued suggestion that they are anything more, that they are something that we can actually trust and take seriously as a source of information, unaware that we are likely doing so less to be informed than to be entertained.

And so we have become the sad enablers of our own creepy addiction.  And our country is suffering for it, as we are more deeply divided now than at any time in modern history.  

Yet, as we the viewers have lifted cable news to this level of esteem, so too can we disenfranchise it by no longer watching it.  We can reinvest our time and allegiances to print journalism, a medium in which ratings are irrelevant and entertainment is not a priority, where outside the editorial section, there is little space for opinions and personality in an environment anchored in facts and words alone.

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the "mainstream media," note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult. So try for yourself to write a proper article, involving work in the real world: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule. If you find you like doing this, keep a blog. In the meantime, give credit to those who do all of that for a living. Journalists are not perfect, any more than people in other vocations are perfect. But the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.





-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

Indeed the time for apathy is over.  I am encouraged to see a greater feeling of activism among the electorate.  But we must ensure that our passions are those we’ve cultivated on our own terms, and not simply because somebody told us what to think and what to feel.  We must actively participate based on our own individual conclusions, not on those fed to us by what we hear on TV or see on social media. 

If our activism is rooted on our individual ability to think critically, then it will prove to be an activism that lasts, and one that creates the healthier and more united country we seek to become.  

Al & Dean: Bleeding and Breathing

Al and Dean are two old friends and neighbors who live across the street from one another. Every so often, they’ll get into a little discussion over things. What follows is one of their more recent conversations.

Dean: Hey Al…

Al: Hey Dean, you’re looking kind of blue.

Dean: You been watching the news?

Al: Yea, sure

Dean: The riots…

Al: Yea well, an innocent man was killed by the police before that.

Dean: I know.

Al: You ought to say something about it.

Dean: What, like the way you do?

Al: No, the way you do.

Dean: I don’t have anything to say, man.

Al: That’s not true. I’ve heard you speak. Granted it was like ten years ago.

Dean: Yep.

Al: You’ve been kind of quiet since.

Dean: Yep. I guess I have.

Al: Why is that? Have you really given it much thought?

Dean: Not that much.

Al: Why do you think?

Dean: I think I’m afraid to admit it.

Al: I’m a friend.

Dean: Yea, I know…

Al: Go ahead.

Dean: You know I’ve always had a problem adding my voice to something that I know to be common sense, an obvious truth. What really could I say? People evidently were failing to grasp that obvious truth anyway, no matter how strong and eloquent people spoke about it, and so I felt like anything I did say wouldn’t make a difference.

And the worst part about it was that I started feeling a little numb to it, to the point that a part of me stopped caring. I even turned a little bitter. For one thing, I figured why should I care about anybody outside my family and friends, anyway? They don’t care about me, and I figured few people in the world actually cared about justice–justice for all people–half as much as they let on anyway. Few people genuinely, sincerely care about a complete stranger.

Al: Well I don’t–

Dean: What they do care more about is being right. They care about shaming and pointing fingers, more than they care about having a real discussion with the other side.

Al: Well, wait a minute. What about those voices on the front lines, the ones you were just talking about, the voices I know you still admire, advocating for social justice–

Dean: And doing so far more powerfully than I ever could. So again, what is the point?

Al: I–

Dean: What is the point beyond reassuring those who already know me that I stand on the side of common sense and decency? What are the chances that my voice really contributes anything of value to the many voices already out there making a difference? Or at least trying their best.

Al: Well, how do you know your voice couldn’t make a difference?

Dean: I know.

Al: Why, because you’re white?

Dean: Well, in the end…what do I really know about the suffering they’re going through?

Al: That might be, but that doesn’t mean don’t say anything at all.

Dean: Ok…but where do you want to draw the line of moral outrage when it comes to the history of this country? Because I tell ya, I think once you start down that path, it becomes hard to stop, or at least harder to draw the line.

Al: Hmm…

Dean: But you know, I’m hesitant to say any more on that last point, even now, because I think the truth of the matter is too frightening for any of one of us to face without falling back into the same…well, the same kind of apathy I experienced.

Al: Right.

Dean: You think I’m a creep?

Al: No I don’t.

Dean: No?

Al: No, and I don’t think you’re entirely wrong. But of course, you’re not right either.

Dean: Ok.

Al: First, I don’t think it’s any big secret that apathy is easier to indulge when you’re white. When the cost of inaction isn’t so directly consequential to you that it could mean your life, or the life of a family member. Black people don’t have that luxury because they experience most directly the consequences of inaction.

Dean: Yea. I agree.

Al: Well, there you see…I got this feeling you’ve already made up your mind about speaking out, before we even started this conversation.

Dean: Yes, I think I have.

Al: Right. I mean, nothing I’ve said so far is anything you don’t already know. George Floyd isn’t the first man to be murdered because of race.

Dean: No, he’s not.

Al: So what’s brought you back to wanting to speak up? What’s brought you back from your apathy?

Dean: I can’t pinpoint one specific cause. I think, for one thing, I needed to listen, and make good use of the time to figure out how I wanted to say certain things before I even said them. There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s only getting louder. And so, I think if you’re going to speak out, you ought to make it count, you know? And to do that, you need to figure out how you effectively carry that message across. It’s worth taking some time to figure that stuff out, otherwise it just blends into everything else and adds to a cacophony of noise, which people get numb to after a while. Anything you say goes unheard, and then you’re back at square one, questioning why you even said anything to begin with.

Al: I see, so practicality was more important than principle.

Dean: Well…yea. I guess so. You think I’m a creep?

Al: Of course not.

Dean: What, you don’t believe me?

Al: I do believe you. I just think it’s an interesting admission. I don’t know that I agree, but I do understand where you’re coming from.

Dean: I’m just still a little mixed up about where to start now.

Al: I’ve got some ideas.

Dean: Let’s hear it.

Al: Ok. First thing is to stop being guilty over being white. I’m not saying that you are, but just in case you are, don’t be, because in the end, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Dean: Well let’s say I was a little guilty. Can you blame me?

Al: Yes I can blame you. It’s the way you were born, so get the fuck over it. Nobody cares. You mentioned before, “What do I really know about the suffering they’re going through?” The answer is “Little to nothing.” But all of us, to some extent, are limited by the sphere of our own life experiences, and we have far less control over that, I think, than we could ever know. The control we do have begins in our ability to listen and empathize. So listen to people. Really listen, so you can truly begin to empathize.

Dean: I have been.

Al: Yes, but not exactly the way you should be, at least it doesn’t sound that way. It’s gonna be hard to keep listening and internalizing the problems of the world if you’re so busy punishing yourself and feeling guilty all the time. Especially when you’re already a good person. Guilt won’t do anything but inhibit you, so drop it. In the meantime, remember that being white does still enable you, for now, with a greater privilege and political advantage in improving our world, so use it.

Dean: Yea. I hear ya.

Al: Alright?

Dean: Right.

Al: Now, the most fundamental thing to remember is that there ultimately is no them or they. Never has been, never will be. Those are distinctions of our own creation, illusions which have led to humanity’s suffering instead of its progress. So I think it’s important to recognize that black people are not them or they. No matter how much we’ve convinced ourselves otherwise…in the end, there is only us. Our society and history tells a different story, of course, but if a behavior is learned, then it can be unlearned, at least enough to make a lasting difference in our institutions.

Dean: Yea…

Al: When I look at any ‘people’, that is, any community in the world, I see them as my people. First and foremost. And they’re my people because they’re people. This is the most fundamental and universal truth.

Dean: Right.

Al: Second, they are American. My countrymen and women. And as such, an attack on them is an attack on me. That is what a country is, and if it isn’t…then it needs to be.

The riots we see are a result of these basic truths being denied for hundreds of years in what is essentially a violation against nature. And the violence will continue so long as people are denied the basic freedom to be what they are, so long as humanity is kept from living in its rightful state before nature, or if you think this way, before God. Living as equals, each serving his or her own vital role in one life-force that is humanity.

Dean: That’s heavy man.

Al: Yea but it’s really simple.

Dean: So you say…

Al: Begin by unlearning the biases we’ve been taught from our friends, family and media. Divorce yourself from prejudice and recognize the act not as political correctness, but as mere reality.

Dean: How do I do that?

Al: Well I think everybody has to find their own way. Some might turn to books and other resources, while others might consult alternative perspectives elsewhere. For others still, maybe people like you, the decision itself might be enough. Again, everybody is coming from their own specific experience and perspective.  I mean, I think it’s important to remember that outside the laws of physics there is no objective reality, only perception and our ability to interpret data as constructive or destructive. To that point, for thousands of years, we’ve experimented with prejudice and the conclusion is that it’s destructive.

Dean: Agreed.

Al: We are responsible for the world we create, so let’s start by creating a sustainable one, by recognizing that we are all equally human, as equally flawed as we are capable of creating something of beauty and of lasting value.

Dean: Then what?

Al: Then we roll up our sleeves and get to work. If there’s someone in your life who harbors their own prejudices, remember that those prejudices are taught. So they can be untaught. Don’t be so quick to condemn that person or judge them, otherwise that person’s ego is going to step in the way and dig them deeper into their beliefs. The same applies to someone who fell into the same apathy you experienced. The conversation might be uncomfortable, but that’s part of doing the work. Simply speak, and stand up for what you believe. You can be respectful and firm at the same time. You may not convince them, at least not that day. But you will have achieved one thing at least, in the name of decency and creating a better world.

Dean: What’s that?

Al: You weren’t silent.

____

Resources to Take Action

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

canyons at dawn

by Ren Michael

stepping out
from the canyons at dawn
the pain of the world’s
left him humbled and strong
before a breeze
most familiar
and yet brand-new,
he breathes in the view
receiving rhythm and tune

rising from the river
like the birth of the blues
between the symphonic currents
of the beautiful Danube

go with it, friend
and embrace the flow
as you remember again
the things you’ve always known

and never be afraid
for we are one
heart and soul
we’re the bull in the rain,

with a new world to grow