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Burying Our Heads in the Sand
Dana Williams
I frequently encounter people who see problems around them and know that society is “messed up”, but never seem to make any efforts to change things. Most people can logically understand all the arguments social activists put in front of them, but to make them do anything takes much more work. If activism is defined by “activity”, then “hip cynicism” is the ultimate embodiment of passivity.

Here are a few possible sources of apathy/cynicism and barriers to action:

TV and media monopoly
TV is one of the most sterilizing, docile, and one-way forms of communication. You cannot “communicate”, debate, interact, or hold on a decent conversation with television. Further, mass media in this country is so heavily concentrated that less than half a dozen corporations control the vast majority of all media outlets (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, record labels, movie studios, etc.) The soundbite has shrunk from 1 minute to 10 seconds in just a few decades. Combined with a doctrinal school system, people simply lack the intellectual tools to gather information, analyze facts, and place ideas into a concrete argument.

First World Privilege
People in this country, even the poor, have an incredible amount of privilege. Life is a lot easier than in other countries. This is due to the massive burden of economic deprivation forced upon the rest of the world, primarily the Global South. We have more technologies than practically anyone else, which leads to us taking things for granted and not appreciating actual struggle. Consequently, many are unwilling to give up (even a little) their high-standards of living (or, rather, overindulgence) in order to more sustainably use resources. Consuming less rarely enters our minds because scarcity rarely ever affects us.

Post-modernism
Despite what problems this theory addresses, it tends to be one that leaves sterility in those who adhere to it. If everything is possible, how can people make value judgments? If one can “see everyone's perspective”, but won't make a decision about something, how is this useful? When such an academic approach is taken to issues of injustice-- which are usually rather clear matters of power imbalance-- it can lead to a removed position where one is more willing to theorize about it than do anything.

Right-wing resurgence
The last 25 years have seen massive rollback to the gains made in the late 60's and early 70's-- in which the US actually became an incredibly more open and responsive country. The powers-that-be felt threatened and have done their damnedest to peel-back progressive poverty control, female reproductive rights, and citizen oversight on government. The country became inundated with individualistic politics and self-righteous law-and-order folk.

Ineffective/unresponsive government
Why vote if all the candidates are fakes? Why vote if all the candidates are beholden to big business, not the actual workers of those businesses? Why vote if politicians are so unreachable that they won't be responsive to actual citizen demands? So, who can blame youth or anyone else for being cynical, even when honest politicians/leaders come around? When everyone before you promised you things, but always failed to deliver, why believe any of them, ever?

Growing income gap
Although there's a general trend of apathy in this country, it is especially apparent in the “middle class” (amorphous as it is). When people divorce themselves from urban life, integrated living, mixed income housing, and low-income / blue-collar / low-education people, people become callous towards others. Without any contact with those suffering in society, how can one be expected to have real empathy towards them? Such lifestyles cut people off from diversity and homogenize the ideas, perspectives, and people they come into contact with. The Horatio Alger myth of “anyone can make it” adds to the difficulty in explaining to people that their personality, determination, or luck has little to do with systemic barriers for large sectors of society.

Artificial wisdom
Claiming to know without having a full range of experiences is especially apparent in youth, even activists. Although some people think that a college degree leads to true wisdom, they are fooling themselves. When someone floats through their college career without challenging anything and everything they are taught or debated on (let alone interact with diverse people in the “real world”) how can they actually gain wisdom? Some of the most intelligent, knowledgeable, and politically-savvy people I've ever met have been homeless people! When you live on the fringe of a society you gain an incredible awareness of what dynamics, power structures, and lies the society is founded upon.

Apathy is a symptom of not seeing any [desirable] options. “Hip” indifference seems to be a symptom of an elitist arrogance that claims that only critiquing problems is good enough. Obviously, there is nothing “cool” or “hip” about pointing out (even in a hip-way) to others that a child is standing in the middle of a highway during rush hour, and then not doing anything about it. That's not “hip”, that's cowardly. The same goes for every other destructive form of social and political interaction we have.

Yes, people do have their own lives and turmoil, but there is an unspoken truth being ignored when people see injustice and turn the other way. The truth says, “an injury to one is an injury to all”. We-- including the hip amongst us-- need to realize that even in our comfort we are also being injured. Humanity is being injured.

Our principles are injured when we observe and do nothing.

A rudimentary form of this essay previously appeared on VastLane.org.

05/22/03