10:29am

Thu April 28, 2011
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

Indifference: Far And Away The Most Dangerous Human Capacity

Adam wrote a wonderful blog post this week. His college students, he tells us, typically respond with a sense of powerlessness when they fully absorb the dire environmental challenges that face the planet. In response, he encourages them to make mindful life-choices, concluding with a flourish of rhetoric worthy of a college-graduation address:

The kids facing this century of change may end up becoming the heroic generation. There will be great challenges and great opportunities for them. There may very well be a new form of culture that needs to be built and they will be the ones building it. The point is, this time around, the process may very well begin not in the vast sphere of global politics but in the most intimate domains of immediate experience.

I'm lifted with a warm and welcome sense of optimism.

And then my mind wanders back to last January, when we had a lively discussion on 13.7, here, here, here, here and here, as to whether humans have a killer instinct, a "beast within."

We went round and round. Alternatives were considered. Maybe humans are vulnerable to being manipulated into doing harm, manipulated by fear or greed or tribalism. Maybe killing is just an impulse, not an instinct. And so on.

Commenter Phil P. (@Toasters_R_Truth) wasn't having it:

Hmm, 25 million people killed in WWI, 100 million in WW2. If not a killer instinct, then what?

Russell Grunloh (@boatguy) came right back:

Phil, good point. 
For an answer I'd suggest indifference. 
Deliberately desensitized, detached, anonymously executed ... indifference. 
Far and away the most dangerous human capacity.

Thud.

So when humans are faced with a sense of powerlessness, which we all experience routinely, what circumstances motivate us to engage vs. detach?

When I apply this question to myself, when I ask myself why I'm de facto indifferent to issue X, I find myself coming up with a bunch of justifications: Not an issue I'm familiar with. Too busy as it is. Other people are better poised to deal with it than I am. Maybe the issue is more complex than it appears and I don't know how to sort it out. Maybe the problem will go away of its own accord. Yada yada.

It's total flimflam.

Feeling crummy, I next try to find solace in those moments when I've stuck my neck out, walked the walk, made some sort of difference — however inconsequential. That helps.

And then, what helps me the most is this: I realize that, while I agree with Russell that indifference is indeed our most dangerous capacity, I actually do believe that it's on the wane.

When I scroll back to my 1950's Connecticut girlhood and recall how clueless everyone was about just about everything, how we mindlessly parroted concepts like "Better Dead Than Red" and the "Domino Theory," how my friends were all lily-white and Koreans were gooks and I would have had no idea where to find Nigeria on a map – when I go back there and then think about Adam's students and my students and my kids and what they've come to understand and care about, it gets a whole lot better.

Margaret Mead can take us out:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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