Thursday, February 14, 2019

Indifference, like a fog, suffocates breathing

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” (Elie Wiesel)

In a culture fixated on what we can see, feel, hear, smell and taste, how and where can we find indifference?

There is always the risk that shyness, preoccupation, detachment, reflection, fear, and emotional chaos may be interpreted as indifference. Saying something to another without experiencing a response raises the old question, “How do I read this silence?” Asking another to “do” something with clear, comprehensible delineation of the ‘how’ and an apparently clear agreement to fulfil the “ask”, and then discovering not only was it not done, but the person actually ‘forgot’ to carry out the task, evokes questions based on confusion, and often even disappointment. Was their “not doing” a matter of indifference?

Wiesel’s list of love, art, faith and life each of which’s opposite is indifference, depicts a divide really between those who express indifference and those who are alive.

Today, on Valentine’s Day, when “love is in the air” and when flower shops and Laura Secord shops and dining rooms are in one of the busiest days of their years, millions of men and women are actively, and in their own eyes/mind, authentically re-invigorating their love, attempting to begin a new relationship, reminding another of how their love “works,” and many are stepping outside their ‘comfort zone’ risking rejection. It would seem that indifference is not motivating their expressions of love.

Like the days when one is born, and the ensuing birthdays, or the day when one is about to expire, or to retire, or is celebrating a significant accomplishment, Valentine’s Day attempts to inject some emotional adrenalin into whatever relationships one values. While it is “special” however, and worthy of our attention, it begs the question as to why it is only or primarily on these special days when we pay a little more attention, while letting hundreds, if not thousands, of other days pass with barely a nod of the head.

Of course, we pay extra attention in those moments when we hear that someone is “under fire” for some indiscretion, when indifference is replaced by a kind of appetite for momentary superiority, momentary derision and momentary pride at the expense of one who has “erred”. And these moments increasingly need not be corroborated by specific, verified, trustworthy evidence. A mere whisper of negative gossip is all we need to perk up our sensibilities, our curiosity and our capacity to inflict shame. Tabloid media outlets profit from inflicting shame on high profile persons, whether their story is based on fact or mere innuendo. Tabloids, in that equation, cannot be described as indifferent, given their addiction to the pursuit of profit at the expense of vulnerable targets. Those handing out the cash to buy those pieces of trash also pursue their own motive of inflicting scorn on others who live in the glare of public notoriety.

Nevertheless, personal indifference, like the fog curling around the store-fronts on an early spring morning, is not amenable to legal conviction. It is also not easily measured in profit and loss, as a verified factor in customer preferences, although if something is no longer “selling,” indifference about the product or service is deemed to have set in.

Indifference in a student in a classroom, however, is a highly risky conclusion for a teacher to assume. There may well be penetrating factors such as domestic violence, parental indifference, sibling rejection, extreme poverty and hunger or a state of hopeless ennui that has settled in within the perceptions and attitudes of that student. Failure to “pay attention” to what the teacher is saying, asking, coaching, directing and even requiring can be much more complicated than simply being reduced to indifference.

However, the culture seems to place a high value on indifference given the plethora of serious issues begging for urgent remediation (gun laws, environmental protections, law enforcement inequities, racism, sexism, economic inequality, migration of refugees and asylum seekers, nationalism for example) and the blatant indifference of the political class in some many nations. Seeking their own “interests” ahead of those of the general public, the political class would argue that they are far from indifferent, but primarily focused on meeting the more immediate needs of raising funds, signing up endorsements, passing legislation or delivering speeches that will garner positive headlines, have taken over their hours and days, their weeks and months, and relegated the “big” issues to another period of history.

“Indifference” however, is the diagnosis that much of the public imposes on the “other,” whether that other is an insensitive boss, teacher, principal, town councillor, mayor, premier, governor or even president/prime minister who fails to bring about the actions and decisions that “we” deem necessary and appropriate.

On the human-to-human level, too it is a general “convention” that if we are uninterested in “responding” to a friend request on facebook, we are expressing “indifference” to the request. In a formal meeting, if we offer up a suggestion for consideration of the meeting, and that idea is immediately passed over as irrelevant, unimportant, redundant, too costly, or untimely, the meeting is expressing indifference to the idea, and thereby to the one who has proposed it. No act worthy of censure has been inflicted; no price has to be paid by the individuals sitting around the board room table for passing by the idea, and the proposer. It is, however, a significant “signal” to the offended proposer about his/her relevance, significance, status and respect among the participants.

Needless to say, however, the one who made the proposal will likely retreat from further risk-taking at future meetings. Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote a book not that long ago entitled “The Ingenuity Gap” in which he regretted the gap in ingenuity (both technical and social ingenuity) in the Canadian economy. There is also an argument to be made in this context that many good ideas, having popped into the creative imaginations of ordinary people, in the privacy of their lives, rarely if ever find their way to the decision-making venues, where people with the power and the resources to explore such ideas operate. Much of this withholding can be attributed to the impact of the indifference having poured over the previous expressions of creativity/ingenuity/outside-the-box thinking. And that cataract has been imposed with the impunity of the powerful.

Witness the “paint-by-number” (thanks to Dave Poulin on TSN) operation of the Toronto Maple Leaf power play, over the last two months. Opposing teams have studied the films of the Maple Leaf power play, designed strategies and tactics to confront and to interrupt the smooth flow of the puck, thereby preventing them from scoring. Only two months later were the signs that coaches and players had adjusted to the oppositions’ adjustments.

Was it indifference that plagued the tardy adjustment by the Maple Leafs? Was it a commitment to the status quo that had been highly successful? Is it indifference to the new-comers that plagues the conventional processes and attitudes of many business, service and social organizations? In sacralising the past, are we paying an indifferent snub both to a more creative/ingenuous way of doing things? How many times in our day do we fall into the trap of “indifference” knowing that such a cocoon is protected from penetrating investigation. We might be asked, “Are you OK today?” if we take a position of “indifference” in a public setting. Yet, another of the protective conventions, at least in Canadian culture, that both permits and enables indifference is the maxim, “we do not wish to be involved in another’s personal life”. “Mind you own business” has been a mantra so historically and traditionally rooted in our especially British ancestors’ lives and experiences that it has deep and complex roots in the Canadian cultural landscape.

Is indifference also a mask for professionalism, and for a kind of mask of superiority? If we encounter an idea which we had not previously considered, regardless of when and where the encounter occurs, and immediately sluff it off in an indifferent shrug, we are not only shrugging off the idea, but also the person who has risked its utterance.

When we shrug off an invitation to a house party, as if we really are indifferent to the invitation, we are shrugging off the person and the family issuing the invitation. When we shrug off any new idea, because to pay attention to a new “idea” would threaten our world view, we are indulging our neurosis, that not only precludes more consideration of the idea, (and respect for the proposer) but also restricts the potential of the successful application of that new idea.

Is there a piece of research currently being undertaken at any respected graduate school that looks at the “costs” of corporate indifference, political indifference, familial indifference, legal indifference, medical indifference, and ultimately spiritual indifference?

It says here that social workers whose case load imposes a level of indifference on professional practitioners costs us remediated young lives. Similarly, medical and legal case loads, too, often result in a level of indifference, for a variety of reasons that cost both people and organizations much in their potential to adapt and adjust to new realities. An indifference has fallen like an impenetrable fog over the legislative process, limiting, if not eliminating the political realm, as discussed above, a level of indifference to the public interest h, transparency, accountability and certainly precluding visionary and needed decisions.

If we do not hold high our potential to engage in love, art, faith and life, through a penchant for insidious and pervasive indifference, in our private and our public lives, then we all pay a price that might actually be threatening to those life forces on which our individual and our collective lives depend.

Elie Wiesel’s witness that the opposite of love, art, faith, and life is indifference applies to the smallest corners of our lives, as well as to the shared life of the planet’s survival. And wakening to our own indifference will not be easy or predictable. And it is certainly not inevitable


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