Social Apathy: Why do we choose to look away?


See the original published article on Korea Times.

I will never forget the day I turned “bad.”

It was hot and humid in tropical Cambodia and the sun had 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.

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, “Someone else will donate 100 dollars and save 200 children.” We’re constantly reminded to turn off our lights to save the Earth.

We respond, “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 Rohingya refugee crisis. Having been described by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ra’ad Al Hussein, as having “elements of genocide” that could not be ruled out, this persecution is tragic. Yet, what have most of us done for the Rohingya people?

We read the news, empathize, and think, “How devastating.” We tweet and write comments expressing our disapproval.

We settle for easy keyboard commentary that soothes our conscience but keeps the status quo and then we move on.

We expect the authorities to resolve the issue _ we expect the U.N. to take action, and if not the U.N., then maybe the government or even NGOs. But we never expect that of ourselves. W

hen problems arise elsewhere and affect people abroad, apathy envelops us, and we whisper to ourselves, “This isn’t your fight.”

Of course, there are many humanitarians who do take on the mantle of leadership, but there are more who choose not to. While the actions of the few somewhat help in counterbalancing the apathy of the many, the scales never really tip in their favor.

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 callous and 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 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 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.