I wrote this piece two years ago and submitted it last summer to be considered for a book. It was selected to be published in What We Think: Young Voters Speak Out, which came out last October (it can be purchased on Amazon). More information on the book and its compilers are at College Tree Publishing. Enjoy!
It’s not easy being the future leaders of America. We’ve got the last generation’s problems – race relations, the environment and gender discrimination – plus new dilemmas like national security and globalization to deal with.
But talking problems is dangerous, because it gets out of hand and overwhelms us.
And to save ourselves in this oh so crazy Information Age, we’ve learned to shut down when overwhelmed. Frustration and helplessness are not new feelings, but I fear the long-term consequences of these sentiments because of their prevalence.
I’m an optimistic person that holds a lot of hope for our collective futures. Broadly speaking, our generation loves more and shares more – but doesn’t seem to care more. That’s where the trouble starts, that most of the time we couldn’t care less. That’s where it could all end, with indifference becoming our dominant defense mechanism.
In a nation rife with conflicting viewpoints, it’s hard not to blame people for tuning out. But it’s also understandable, because the causes for indifference are twofold, and include both external and internal culprits.
Externally, it starts with our culture.
It started when the extended family shrunk to the nuclear unit, shifting the focus off the community and onto the individual and his immediate family members.
Capitalism took it a step further and glorified the struggling individual as the hero pursuing the American dream. Class-consciousness sprung up, and with it came that smug secure successful feeling that wholly affirms the system works (I got here on my own merit and those bums are only homeless because they’re too lazy to get jobs). God was removed a degree and acknowledged as Creator, so man assumed the now-vacant position as sustainer, proven through and through by technological advances that give people instant gratification, what we want when we want it. Never a dull moment on the World Wide Web, because there’s always something new popping up. Plus, the convenience of machines is fast becoming a substitute for human interaction, and we all know how mind-numbing that can be.
Which brings us to today, why the average student’s attention span is 20 minutes and why ongoing news like the war in Iraq and the flailing economy don’t kick up as much interest anymore. Gone are the fiery days of anti- and pro-war rallies, as is the anticipation over lower interest rates. Reality becomes sterilized, war reduced to strategies and unemployment to statistics. It’s gotten to be that if it doesn’t affect us directly, we aren’t expected to care – we aren’t conditioned to care. The nation’s AIDS epidemic is bigger than us, we’re told. One person cannot save the world from global warming, so why try?
That’s where the internal element comes in. It takes a lot of energy to muster up compassion or dismay or grief. It’s so much easier to remain in one constant, safe state: apathy. That apathy stems from disinterest (we get bored easily because we’ve come to expect a constant flow of information) and disenchantment (our idealism has been tainted and replaced by a growing sense of powerlessness). The advent of the Internet also makes it easier for us to look at global issues with a certain sense of detachment – it’s all happening way over there on the other side of the plasma screen, to them (not us).
Thus far I’ve used only my own analysis to identify the root causes of a problem I contend to be the largest facing our generation today.
But countless psychologists and sociologists have used the same disturbing trend to explain historical tragedies like the Holocaust as well as dilemmas in today’s political arena (i.e. “voter apathy”).
Late behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner points outs that Western cultural practices promote the “pleasing effects of behavioral consequences at the expense of strengthening effects.” He elaborates by saying we spend too much time alienating workers from the consequences of their work, guiding behavior with rules instead of supplying consequences and reinforcing pleasures that are not contingent to our survival. In other words, we work like programmed robots and use sex and love to reassure us of our humanity. I’m not being melodramatic.
Think about your favorite book or movie, or the escapist entertainment that followed Sept. 11’s tragedy. Those diversions evoked feelings within us, sentiments that may have lingered a few hours or days after the fact, but no longer. That’s called canned emotion, and it’s fooling us into believing we’re not losing ourselves to indifference. Oftentimes, we mistakenly believe that television and movies reflect reality – so we try to concern ourselves with Rachel’s latest love spat instead of the nation’s rising suicide rate.
In his essay, Skinner carries the effects of apathy to its logical conclusion: cultural stagnation.
But that’s only hakuna matata – no worries, no progress – for the masses, not the movers and shakers of this nation. To a certain extent, the status quo needs the public’s indifference in order to hold on to those privileged positions. And to push those agendas.
Why else has the Patriot Act II – a complete violation of our constitutional rights – gotten so far? The newspapers are writing about it and city council resolutions are condemning it. But the masses haven’t gotten behind it and the question is why?
Section 201 of the Act’s text states: “The government need not disclose information about individuals detained in investigations of terrorism until disclosure occurs routinely upon the initiation of criminal charges.” Goodbye, Bill of Rights.
Or affirmative action. Take my campus, the University of Michigan, the hotbed for a national debate. A poll taken right around decision time showed that nearly one in five U-M students surveyed simply didn’t hold an opinion on the issue. We just don’t care, one way or the other, the consensus was.
Scary stuff. But I’m getting into problems again, and I don’t want to lose you. So let’s jump to solutions.
Basically, if it’s going to be us that will inherit this planet, we’re going to have to step up and do a few things to ensure its survival. The first thing, of course, would be to show a sign of life. Educated expression, and not ignorant indifference. The second thing relates to the first: education. Hey, knowledge is power.
But be careful. It’s easy to sit back and watch CNN and “objectively” observe and then talk to your friends and sound all edumacated, now that you have the “facts” and have drawn your own conclusions off of them. It’s the whole taking it a step further and trying to look at things from a multi-dimensional viewpoint that tends to be our problem. We’re comfortable with what we got, what we know. It’s unsettling to hear different things, to reject the tide of the crowd and to figure out the truth.
It’s human nature to want to simplify information into easily-processed bite-sized morsels. But truth is often never so simple as black and white, especially in times of crisis and suffering. It’s multifaceted and it deserves to be scrutinized as such. And man, that takes so much work! But exerting that effort is critical, I promise you.
How many of you have traveled overseas? How else would you understand that people are not happy with our foreign policy? That certainly doesn’t bode well for us and our future endeavors at international relations, as globalization further intertwines our economy with other countries.
There are also many domestic issues we don’t seem to see, like the stratification of wealth in this nation. It’s just mind-boggling that 10 percent of American families hold two-thirds of the wealth. And that divide between rich and poor is growing because we’re still pushing tax cuts and school vouchers and trying to convince ourselves that everyone’s competing on equal footing.
These are difficult concepts to grasp, I understand. Education is vital, but it’s wasted without critical thinking skills. That’s another arena we need to work on, analyzing the stuff that’s being shoved down our throats, war and abortion and homosexuality and religion and politics and terrorism. Analyzing rather than swallowing politely, turning our heads, and throwing it all up.
Please, take everything I said here and mull it over – and then tell me I’m a complete idiot. I’ll thank you for it, because you’ll have proved me wrong by showing that we’re still picky about the information we consume. The memory of your criticism will help me feel better when I see students shudder at reading assignments and forego The Guardian for The Enquirer. Or worse, watch the local news instead of reading a credible newspaper.
Perhaps you agree that we have a problem here, but that this problem does not affect you. “To think that we can escape control is a delusion that prevents us from attending to the task of making a better world,” our man Skinner said. So to those of you that think they are exceptions to the rule: you’re deluding yourselves. You’re as much caught in this mess as the rest of us, myself included.
Ok, so processing information and sorting the wheat from the chafe (the gems from the crap) is the first step. But there’s still enough important information out there to fry our synapses and send us into overload. That’s where priorities come in. Choose your battles carefully. Perhaps championing for campaign finance reform is your true calling or maybe it’s finding the cure for cancer.
Remember that you don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems by yourself, or in just one night. If enough of us start to care and wield our fortes to fill the gaps in the system, then our futures really will have a fighting chance.