In Defense of Apathy (2)

This is the second and last post in a series. In my preceding post, I articulated one thing wrong with lumping all non-voters together as “apathetic.” In today’s post I consider another thing wrong with it.

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            Perhaps an even more important thing wrong with labeling all non-voters alike as apathetic is that it actually helps to keep coercive power in power, as it were. The mere labeling of all non-voters as apathetic—in its dominant contemporary meaning of indolent, lazy, or just not caring—already reinforces the idea that one is doing something important by voting, and acting irresponsibly by not doing so. 

However, more than one author has cogently argued that encouraging the public to think in such an automatic pro-voting way actually supports a power system that has rigged the outcome of any election in advance. Regardless of which candidate eventually gets elected, so the argument runs, the underlying power structure will not only be maintained, but actually strengthened by such focus on voting. That is because, the argument has it, focusing on voting every so often, as though that were the most important civic responsibility one has, powerfully helps to divert potentially disruptive energies into what are really harmless channels.

 As British singer-composer Morrissey sums up that argument in the title piece to his 2014 album World Peace Is None of Your Business: “Each time you vote you support the process.”

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Our English word apathy derives from Greek apatheia, which meant “freedom from suffering.” That Greek word is made up of the negative prefix a- plus pathos, meaning “emotion, passion, affect,” that is, the varied and ever-varying feelings that all human beings suffer—in the neutral, root sense of undergo—all the time throughout their entire lives. Especially among the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics, apatheia was used positively, to name a high and rare virtue. It was used that way among early Christian writers as well, especially in the literature of the desert hermits and of monastic authors of the first few centuries. It is still so used to this day in Orthodox Christian monasticism. This ancient, positive idea of apathy held it basically to be the virtue we might call equanimity, an evenness or calmness of mind or soul (from Latin aequus, “equal, even,” plus animus, “mind, soul”).

Apathy in such an old, positive sense is highly desirable, for example, in judges in our judicial system. We do not want judges who are apathetic in the dominant current, negative sense. That is, we do not want judges who are uncaring, most especially uncaring about justice itself. In fact, we want our judges to care very deeply for justice, and strive vigorously for justice in all of their official judgments. For that very reason, we rightly require that our judges be dispassionate in judging the cases brought before them and disinterested with regard to those cases. They are to be dis-interested in the sense that they do not have any “vested interest” one way or the other in the outcome of the cases they adjudicate. Judges who do have vested interests in cases brought before them are required to recuse themselves from those very cases. If they do not, they are in violation of judicial ethics, and deserving of censure. 

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            Theodrose Fikre is a former community organizer and one-time defense consultant. Some of his writing from his community organizing days found its way into Barack Obama's South Carolina speech after his primary victory there in 2008. Fikre has since turned dramatically away from politics—or at least from what passes for politics in our current system. In a recent article in The Ghion Journal (an online source of news and commentary that he founded and edits) entitled “An Open Letter to Future Activists: Be a Post-Tribal Generation” and dated March 31, 2018,* he writes:

Do not let politics distract you from your purpose. There was a time I used to view this world through the left/right divide. Now I realize that politics itself is the problem. When we glom on to political labels and attach ourselves to partisan ideologies, we allow the establishment to shatter us into encampments. The only people who thrive in this hyper partisan paradigm are professionals in the politico-media complex and their corporate masters who make fortunes through our disunion. The rest of us, who keep viewing politics as a sport, are getting pillaged by the very personalities we keep cheer leading for. [.  .  .]  Many of you know this already; when it comes to policies, there is not an iota of a difference between the two parties. They differ in their methodologies but in the end both sides of the aisle are colluding to bleed our nation and our planet. [.  . .] It is an act of self-harm to vote or believe in either party, they have proven for more than a century that their cardinal agendas are to serve their corporate masters, amass wealth and consolidate clout as they pay lip service to justice. [.  .  .] Don’t be like us, be better than us and find a way to disavow politics and stand up for inclusive justice.

Fikre is not at all lazy, and it is most certainly not the case that he does not care about public issues—that is, issues affecting not merely his private interests, but the community as a whole. He has, in fact, dedicated his life to helping address those very issues, and to do so as effectively as possible. 

Fikre wants to be as effective as he can be in expressing his care and concern for issues of the common wellbeing, precisely because he wants his caring to benefit the whole community, rather than just making him feel good about himself—about what an upstanding citizen he is. It is not at all for lack of caring that he has turned aside from politics (or what passes for it), and that he encourages others who care as he does to do the same. For the very sake of all, he calls upon all who care for public wellbeing to disengage from politics, or from what has for so long gone by that name in this country. 

That is not the voice of indolence, laziness, or indifference. If it is the voice of apathy, then that is not at all in the modern sense of that word. Rather, it would have to be in the ancient Stoic or Christian hermetic and monastic sense of apathy, the sense that is still alive in Orthodox Christian monasticism today. That is, it would have to be the sort of apathy that freed us from the grip of fleeting storms of emotion and passion, which are in fact all too easily manipulated and directed by, and to the profit of, official power and the ideology it promulgates. 

The sort of apathy that I would attribute to Fikre and others like him is the sort that frees us from our bondage to fleeting, often manipulated, affects. It frees us from being controlled by and through such affects, and empowers us to act calmly, collectedly, and above all caringly for the common good of all, rather than for the private profit of a few. The sort of apathy at issue is the foundation of clear-sighted courage, justice, prudence, and temperance, undergirded and given effective potency by faith, hope, and love.

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Such apathy does not need my defense. Such apathy, once understood, defends itself.