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March 19, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Trouble With Talking

People Just Don’t Fucking Care About Things

There is always, always a hot issue that prompts lively discussion. It might be aid in Africa, or Angelina Jolie having a leg, which I’m reliably informed she does. I was reminded of this recently, when I was having coffee with two friends of mine, and we were talking about what has been happening in Europe (banks and Greece and Mama Merkel, etc.) because we’re just so much fun.

One confessed that she knew very little about what was going on. It just didn’t seem that important to her day to day life, so she hadn’t actively sought out any information. The other was flabbergasted at this; our friend had, in his mind, failed some sort of test of global civic duty. He then proceeded to berate her with facts and figures, and his explanatory fervor was so intense that I had to wonder whether or not it was borne of something other than him being really concerned with finance. Was he driven, perhaps, by the belief that doing nothing is somehow abstractly evil? That apathy is evil?

Sometimes it seems like everyone is standing on either side of a yawning chasm; those that have opinions on everything and those that have opinions on very little (something I think is perhaps a little more intense at university). I’ve encountered people recently who find this really quite upsetting, and both parties have very negative, inflated, hopelessly hyperbolic ideas about the other.

On one hand, people who think that they have little right to form an opinion about something they have not experienced see the Tsars of neo-postmodern- feminist-anarcho-Leninist thought attend political sit-ins and organic soup parties. They have political beliefs that come from the Wikipedia articles they have swallowed on the Rwandan genocide and Japanese prostitution in the 18th century. These egotistical snobs sneer condescendingly at everyone around them; people who appear to have very little interest in anything outside their own immediate sphere of life experience. In order to educate these lost souls they take to their tumblrs to write three thousand word blog posts on Why You Are Stupid and post links on Facebook to articles on The Guardian that (they know) absolutely no-one is going to read.

Conversely, there are groups of people who feel like they are adrift in a sea of apathy; where daily their own noble beliefs are contested by people too stupid and ignorant to bother picking up a newspaper. For them, this is the ultimate evil. They see humankind inordinately transfixed by the mundane lives of the bacterial Kardashians and sundry rugby players, soap stars, pop divas and nobody really worth as much attention as they receive. Their convictions are what gives them moral fulfilment. The fact that they are informed puts them across some important line.

Obviously, this is illustrative hyperbole. Although, in the interests of full journalistic disclosure, I do know a person who fits that first description to the letter and honest to God I just want to staple his tongue to his forehead most of the time.You get the gist though; a lot of people are at odds over what it means to hold a express a position regarding something. To do so means different things to different individuals.

Most people, justifiably, express a certain level of discomfort when it comes to actively forming a belief about something they have not experienced themselves. It’s the archetypal liberal philosophy; people should be able to do what they want. The gays want to get married? That’s cool. Go for it. I’m not gay—I’m not going to get gay married. Who cares? I won’t get in your way. Everything works out nicely. This makes total sense. At the same time, it feels a tiny bit lazy. When you set your life philosophy out so that you only engage with what you absolutely have to, you are in many ways giving tacit permission for the bad to happen along with the good.

This is why the fracas surrounding KONY 2012, which I’m sure most of you are completely sick of by now, is so interesting. Out of nowhere, your facebook feed was awash with cries of outrage over humanitarian injustices. People who previously produced only detailed descriptions of exactly how fucked they were last Friday night were now discussing something altogether more serious. For a lot of people, this is entirely out of character. They might know and feel that an army of abducted child soldiers being forced into violent situations is deplorable, but a reluctance to be politicized about it stops them from taking to the streets over it. It’s hard to decide how to feel about this; if apathy is evil, then surely creating awareness about a very, very nasty man is good. That it took a dubious charity to make a slick video, starring a wide-eyed white child telling you that Oh Wow Bad Things Are Happening In Africa is another thing altogether. What are we looking for, then? We want people to be opinionated and informed but in a specific way? This is becoming altogether rather tangled.

A possible solution, and I think this might just be the one, is to think about the way in which we develop convictions, rather than the why or the what of them. Some years ago, I knew someone who was grappling with her religion. She described the completely unimaginable (for me) pain that she felt when she woke up and realised that her belief in God had gone. Just like that. Living with her family after that became rather painful, as their unshakable belief in something she didn’t subscribe to anymore became the source of tension. The thing that she valued in people from that point on, she said, was the ability to be wrong. To accept that what you believe is incorrect, and adjust it accordingly.

People with strong convictions are cool. I like them. I am one of them. The idea of being someone too meek or timid to form an opinion on anything is a profoundly frightening prospect. I find that when something I am incredibly impassioned  by meets with a wall of apathy I want to rip my hair out and fling heavy objects at people.

Turn the argument you’re having into something you can learn from. Be prepared to alter your ideas about something. People are so afraid to do this, and I wish I knew why. Make the immovable debate a fluid dialectic, where you develop your position rather than “lose” at some nebulously defined competition. This sounds like a self-help book, but hey. If anything, you’ll surprise people. The person who holds a strong conviction but has the grace to accept that they’re wrong is quite rare indeed.

Of course, some people might just be stricken with a chronic disinterest in everything. I really hope that isn’t the case. It would break my heart.

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