Social Apathy: Why do we choose to look away?
I will never forget the day when I turned “bad.”
It was hot and humid in tropical Cambodia and the sun had already awoken from its slumber hours ago. With glistening beads of sweat streaming down their faces, two girls, no more than 10 years old, approached me and put forth a basket of handmade bracelets, each covered in a fine layer of dirt. A sign below one of the girl’s baskets read “1 for 1,000 riel.” A measly 25 cents. Yet I was quick—too quick—to shoo them off and instead pranced toward a distant ice cream parlor that appeared like an oasis.
Halfway there, I looked back and they had already approached a new group of tourists. ”They probably pass by thousands of people every day,” I thought. “Let them help, not me. I want ice cream.”
As insensitive as my comments were, they were not rare.
Who among us, while aware of society’s injustices, has actually taken significant action in response? UNICEF blares into our ears, “Save a child’s life with only 50 cents.” We respond, “Maybe not today. Besides, it’s only 50 cents. Someone else will donate a 100 dollars and save 200 children.” We’re constantly reminded to turn off our lights to save the Earth. We respond, “Eh, I don’t need to. One person won’t make a difference.” Yet if a million people believe they can’t make a difference, someday they will, and it won’t be a positive one.
That is apathy, and we are often apathetic.
As a case in point, take a look at the media. It’s common knowledge that news agencies prioritize some stories over others. But the criteria for determining which events deserve front-page coverage and which are relegated to burial in a short article on page 20 of The New York Times is often based not on newsworthiness but on the viewership and marketability of a story. Take, for example, the famine in Yemen, in which 17 million lives are threatened, 50,000 children have died from starvation, and the incidence of cholera has increased from 50,000 in May 2017 to more than 300,000 in July. These numbers are according to the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir Stephen O’Brien, and have been exacerbated by an ongoing civil war and then further worsened by a Saudi blockade. Yet the Yemeni famine has received comparatively less coverage than other issues that affected far fewer people like, President Donald Trump’s antics.
An even more jarring case is the 2015 Nepali earthquake, which, admittedly, did receive significant coverage. But that lasted only for a few days After documenting the devastation, the media moved on to the next story. And since donations follow coverage, relief funds dried up the moment the media—and therefore the people—stopped caring. As the founder of All Hands and Hearts, David N. Campbell, said in a personal interview, “After the media abruptly stopped reporting on the Nepal earthquake, funds necessary for long-term recovery experienced a marked drop.” Today, the remnants of the earthquake can still be seen in the piles of rubble that litter the streets and the clusters of shoddily constructed tents where the displaced still live. When the fourth estate provides only cursory coverage of tragedies, public awareness drops and apathy ensues.
In the rare instance when media outlets do fully report on all stories, the torch of apathy then passes into the hands of their audience. These past few months, extensive coverage by the press jutted the Rohingya refugee crisis into international attention. This persecution is now considered “tragic” by both Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis, and has even been described by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ra’ad Al Hussein as having “elements of genocide” that could not be ruled out. But none can characterize this mistreatment better than the expressive words of Fatima Sultan, a 20-year-old refugee, who said, “I want to go back to my home—when we are treated as citizens, when there is no violence, when women are not tortured and kidnapped, when at last we can be free.”
Yet, what have most of us done for the Rohingya people? We read the news, empathize, and think, “How devastating.” And then we move on with our lives. We expect the authorities to resolve the issue—we expect the UN to take action, and if not the UN, then maybe the government or even NGOs. But we never expect that of ourselves.
Even in tragedies that have received far more extensive media coverage, like the Syrian refugee crisis, apathy remains. Because while the few may take to the streets and organize fundraisers, the rest of us won’t budge. When problems arise elsewhere and affect people abroad, our apathy envelops us, and the devil inside us all whispers in our ears, “This isn’t your fight.”
But sometimes, even we flick our devils off our shoulders, push apathy away, and start to care. We saw Charlie Hebdo gunned down, terrorist attacks plaguing Europe, mass shootings in schools, nightclubs, and concerts, and hurricanes ravaging through the American continent. And we felt sympathetic and even empathetic. But instead of channeling our feelings into meaningful change, we took the easy way out. We commented “one like for Texas <3” and tweeted #PrayforParis. Under videos of raging atrocities, we wrote comments expressing our disapproval but then went back to the routines of our daily lives. Rather than doing the hard work that would result in tangible change, we settled for easy keyboard commentary that soothed our conscience but kept the status quo.
We may care, but we never care enough. And when we do care, we never act.
Of course, there are many humanitarians who do take on the mantle of leadership. But while the actions of these few somewhat help in counterbalancing the apathy of the many, the scales never really tip in their favor. When has a movement succeeded when not all the people were on board? How can the vessel of change set sail without all stations manned and ready?
I remember at this time last time last year South Korean citizens of all ages and from all walks of life took to the streets in protest of former president Park Geun-hye who was involved in a corruption scandal. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of Seoul City Hall every Saturday night for weeks on end in an atmosphere of spirited but peaceful protest. The president couldn’t do anything because the nation was unified against her, and soon she was impeached.
The Seoul protests were spearheaded not by one brave individual but by the passion of thousands of individuals. That means everyone. It’s not enough for one person to be empathetic if a thousand others are apathetic. For a successful movement, we all must take significant action.
Helen Keller once said, “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all—the apathy of human beings.” Likewise, politics has negotiated relative peace, technology has improved our global standard of living, and even the fear of retributive violence has kept rogue states in check. But apathy remains resilient.
So, why are we apathetic? Is it because we are heartless?
As an emotionally capable species, most humans possess the capacity to feel and to be empathetic. We aren’t as callous as Thomas Hobbes presumed us to be. Apathy does not stem from an inability to care but rather from other underlying factors.
One is this notion that we are neither powerful nor influential enough to effect change. We look toward the altruists and the wealthy to help, and we see ourselves as mere extras in a Hollywood action movie, just waiting for the “chosen one” to save the others. But if the protests against President Park teach us anything, it is that if thousands of people experience a paradigm shift and start to believe they matter, and if all these people unify into a single force, change is possible. By realizing this simple truth, we can begin the treatment for apathy.
An even more malicious strand of apathy is rooted in self-interest. As long as there is money to be earned, knowledge to be gained, and time to be enjoyed, we cannot afford, or do not want, to divert our attention to others. So, when people outside our immediate purview suffer, we look away and instead focus on ourselves. But if we gaze into the moral mirror, we will see this self-interest for what it is…apathy.
After this introspection comes outward action. We must first demand more coverage by the media so that the voices of those who suffer are heard beyond sound bytes. Then, we must engage with the stories that are reported. We must talk about what’s happening, share our opinions, raise money, garner support, take to the streets, support organizations committed to fighting injustices, and then finally, we can bring about change.
Name: Justin Chang
School: Seoul International School
Level: High School