No Place for Apathy

Let’s face it. The last year and a half have been really difficult. And it is is not like the years before that were a walk in the park. It is okay to not be okay in relation to the challenging experiences that seem to keep coming our way. It is okay to take some time to retreat for our own mental health and to focus some on our own well-being. Each one of us is a person of inherent worth who is worthy of love and grace, and it is important that we love ourselves and take care of ourselves.

As we are reminded anytime we fly in an airplane, when the cabin is deprived of oxygen, one must put the oxygen mask on themselves first before they can be of proper assistance to others. Having experienced a flight once where the use of oxygen masks were required, this is not an experience I wish on anyone, but it does illustrate that self care is necessary for the proper care of others.

This of course does not mean that we focus so much on the care of ourselves that we don’t care about others or become apathetic about their needs and the challenges they are facing. Once we have the oxygen mask securely over our own face, we have a moral responsibility to help those who are struggling to breathe.

As we look at all the challenges and struggles we are currently facing, this is not the time or place for simply focusing on our own comfort while ignoring the plight of others. As we experience an ongoing public health emergency, we must recognize that the very nature of a public health emergency means that it is not simply about what is good for ourselves or only about our personal decisions and personal responsibility. It is also, and more importantly, about our responsibility to each other as we work together for the health and common good of all.

Our responsibility to each other means that we ought to get vaccinated for the sake of ourselves and others, and given what we know about the Delta variant of COVID-19, our responsibility to each other also means that we should all be wearing masks in indoor public spaces according to CDC and World Health Organization guidance. We cannot allow ourselves to become apathetic about our current health emergency because the virus feeds off of our apathy.

It is not only literal viruses that feed on our apathy and lack of commitment to social responsibility and the common good. Apathy is the enemy of justice and allows the virus of injustice to run rampant in our world. Apathy is giving in to the lie that things cannot get better or at the very least less bad, and this is precisely what the purveyors of social and ecological injustice and its profiteers want.

The corporations and persons who are profiting off of the sixth great extinction on our planet don’t need us to support what they are doing. They just need us to think there is nothing we can really do about it.

Those working to suppress access to voting don’t have to convince the majority of us that they are right to do so. They simply have to keep us apathetic enough to do nothing meaningful about it.

Fossil fuel companies don’t have to convince us that climate change is not real (though they have certainly attempted to do that). They just have to convince us to be apathetic about it. Our apathy translates into their profits.

An effective way to cultivate apathy by those who desire to do so is to create a sense of unsolvable chaos and a world of “alternative facts” through misinformation and propaganda. Take apathy about systemic racism as an example. One way to keep people apathetic about the injustices of systemic racism of the present is to keep them from learning about the reality of the injustices of systemic racism in our past and to falsely portray any significant and sustained resistance to systemic racism as disorder. The effect is the perpetuation of the injustices of systemic racism into our future.

We see this with the current attack on the teaching of Critical Race Theory by numerous state legislatures. This is analogous to the rewriting of the history of the Confederacy by white supremacists who perpetuated the myth of the Lost Cause of the South to deny the real reasons behind the Civil War. The virus of systemic racism feeds on the apathy cultivated by such propaganda.

It is critical to recognize that apathy is often an expression of privilege whereby those who are apathetic are not made more vulnerable by their inaction yet contribute to greater vulnerability of others. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the danger and privilege of apathy in his criticisms of the silence of white moderates in relation to the fierce urgency of the civil rights movement. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King lamented: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in [our]stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises [persons who are black] to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

A year before his assassination, King warned that “there is such a thing as being too late” and that “[t]his is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” (King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?).

Who would have thought that 56 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed that these rights would be threatened by a Supreme Court wallowing in its own privilege and by state legislatures hell-bent on turning back the hands of time to an America that was much less diverse, much less just, much less participatory, and much less free.

This current Congress is potentially the last best chance for new comprehensive voting rights legislation. If this opportunity is squandered by the apathy of a couple of white Democratic senators, it could very well be a mortal wound to our democratic republic.

May we truly heed Martin Luther King’s warning and exhortation. “This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” May it be so and may we work together to make it so with a common commitment for love and justice before it is too late.

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