Our Epidemic of Indifference

The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.  —Christopher Pike, Black Blood

F or the fifth time, a car in the right lane cut quickly into the left forcing me to brake. We had only been on the interstate for 20 minutes and the battle of the passing lane was raging. As I slowed 5 mph to accommodate the latest obstacle in my journey, I contemplated the existential question of highway etiquette. Is it rude to cut-in and force a faster moving car to slow down so that you can pass at your preferred moment? As I pondered this question, it occurred to me that perhaps my question never occurred to the person in front me. Perhaps he thought nothing of it. Perhaps he was completely oblivious to the fact that he forced me to slow down – maybe he just didn’t notice.

You might ask, “Who cares?” Rude drivers are simply part of the experience of driving on an American interstate. Get over it. Ah, but we don’t “get over it,” do we? We get irritated. We get resentful. And then, we do the same thing to the driver coming up behind us. Why not? Everyone else is doing it, right? At that point I realized that the other drive wasn’t oblivious, he was indifferent. He knew I was coming up behind him at a higher speed. He knew that changing lanes at that moment would force me to slow down. It just didn’t matter to him. He was indifferent to its effect on me; he was focused on himself. Caveat agitator – driver beware.

The real problem with this little example is that it is very reflective of our society as a whole. We have evolved into a country of “takers,” individuals focused on getting theirs – even at the expense of others. Harsh? Perhaps. But our highway indifference to other individuals is indicative of a deeper problem.  We’ve become numb to the preferences of others – particularly when they conflict with our own. You might argue that self-interest is natural and necessary for self-protection. True. However, most of our conflict today revolves around what we want, not what we need for safety or survival.

An old American aphorism goes “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Our country’s ethos has long been rooted in a rough and tumble sense of freedom. We hold our rights as sacrosanct…and worth fighting for. I wonder if we’ve gone too far. Has our self-interest morphed into indifference to the interests of others? Do we no longer care if we cut someone off because of our desire to be where we want be when we want to be there? Has our sense of freedom been twisted into yet another entitlement meant to be used as sword instead of a shield?

I posit this notion against the backdrop of the circus surrounding our southern border. Arguments are flying from all directions. Misinformation is flying in all directions.  An unfortunate circumstance becomes a political opportunity, a media opportunity, and another place for us to yell as loudly as we can at one another with utter indifference to the other person’s viewpoint – particularly if it does not align with our own. Alas, our indifference is not simply a shrug of the shoulders; it is rooted in contempt. Contempt breeds hatefulness of staggering magnitude.

How do I get from the pettiness of rudeness on the highway to contempt for people who disagree with me? That is how hate builds. One discourtesy at a time. One affront at a time. One indignity at a time. It’s like a bank account, the more you put in, the more it accumulates – often with emotional interest. Personal grievances turn into outrage; sometimes moral, sometimes idealogical. Do we rage against the action, decision, law, policy, philosophy, ideology? Partly. Though, more and more frequently, our animus is directed toward individuals and the groups that we bucket them within (as well as what we believe them to believe). The selfish driver becomes an avatar for all of those people who anger us for whatever reason, typically as we categorize their behavior or beliefs as an assault upon our interests. Particularly our self-interests.

The selfish driver becomes an avatar for all of those people who anger us for whatever reason, typically as we categorize their behavior or beliefs as an assault upon our interests.

The most troubling aspect of this sad state of affairs is that it is fomented by a few self-interested individuals. Politicians are prime culprits as they continually seek to agitate their constituents to vote for them or, more aptly, against someone else. Candidates rarely campaign on accomplishments and success, it is almost always on the tearing-down of their opponents. May the loudest voice win; or at least the most ubiquitous one.

The media is another major offender. It is now routine practice to edit video clips, photos, interviews, or quotations to support whatever story a reporter is writing. Why? Follow the money. Always the money. Conflict and sensationalism draw viewers and readers. Viewers and readers draw advertisers. Advertisers create wealth for media companies and their shareholders. We, the lambs…I mean the people, simply pick our preferred source. Someone we can trust. Also, someone who makes huge money making sure we keep watching, listening, or reading.

Outrage is big business and we keep funding it. Justified by an outrage rooted in a sense of moral superiority, we cast our judgments, and our lots, with the politicians, TV stations, newspapers, and celebrities who we feel most closely align with our preferences. We identify with a like-minded group of people and grip tightly to our indifference. Eventually, we let those who get rich off of this business convince us that our opponents are contemptible.  We start disliking Whites, Blacks, Democrats, Republicans, Christians, atheists, Californians, Midwesterners, or foreigners for seemingly opposing our self-interests. Then, when the issue seems big enough, justifiable, we start hating them. Who wins? Follow the money.

The truth is that America is lost in the complexities of its own identity. We have laws so voluminous that no one can know them all or ever fully comply. We have so many special interests that we’re not sure where we fit anymore. We have a two party system that forces us to look in the mirror and try to dissect our ideological complexity with the blunt instrument of a party platform that we’ve never read. We have massive cities with their own set of laws and cultures. We have instant, on-demand information and misinformation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have an entire world telling us who we should be, what we should do, and where we should do it…all based on their self-interests. The only time we unify is in a crisis and even those are becoming confusing as we are pitted against one another by those in power trying to further their own position with tragedy or conflict. All along, we are failing to educate our future generations in the lessons of our past (other than how outrageous were our predecessors in their beliefs and actions) and the true possibility of our future.

As I consider that fifth rude driver impeding me, I realize that the only answer is with each of us. The only way we correct our indifference is by stepping outside our indignation and seeing that other driver as a human being who is just trying to get to his own destination and worthy of us giving him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he didn’t see us. Maybe he’s dealing with tragedy and not as alert as we want him to be. Perhaps he is being rude and is worthy of our better example. Does it really matter? After we’ve forgiven the transgression and let go of our own outrage, then we are ready to do what must be done. Then we are in a place where we can affect a change in ourselves. A place where we can look in the mirror and consider the next driver before we change lanes. Maybe then we’ll find something other than indifference. Perhaps caring, concern, and courtesy will emerge and we’ll show it to someone else. Quite possibly, our behavior will effect some small change and that next driver will appreciate it.

Maybe, with each doing his or her small part, we can unravel our indifference…one driver at a time.


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