Community, Community Building, Community Development

The Limitations of Shocking People Out of Apathy In The Hopes Of Building A Better World

One of the greatest obstacles to building a vibrant, healthy global community–i.e. a better world–is the apathy of so many of its members, a large proportion of which go about life within a limited bubble: they go to work, go home, do their shopping, go on vacation, and ignore the negative things happening in the world, never thinking about how they can contribute to its betterment.

Now it’s easy to point the finger and blame such people for the state of the world.  But at the same time, it’s well worth thinking about how they became this way in the first place.  Is the state of the world bad because of people’s sense of apathy, or is people’s sense of apathy the reason the state of the world is so bad?

Just like the question of did the chicken or the egg come first (the chicken, by the way), such debates are, to me, a waste of time in the face of, well, the state of the world.  Isn’t it more important trying to figure out how we can overcome this powerful sense of apathy?

Some people are trying to do just that.  One way they have found is to bombard people with raw, shocking images on both social media and news outlets.  I’m thinking of the recent picture of a dead child, pictures of dead people lying on the street in pools of blood, those kind of things.

I can understand why such images are being used.  There are always less-than-noble intentions, such as getting more traffic on one’s website.  But there are also some very good reasons, most notably the desire to shake off this sense of apathy and galvanize people into action.

But much like details about rape, do we really need to bombard people with horrific images to inspire their commitment to the betterment of the world?  I find that oftentimes, the weight of such details and images is more than enough to push individuals even more firmly into the grip of apathy.  Not just that, but the despair it inspires can ground to a halt the efforts of formerly galvanized individuals.

I have been wondering if perhaps the use of such images is the equivalent of taking a painkiller when one has a headache instead of drinking more water to avoid the dehydration that caused the headache in the first place.  Similarly, instead of reflecting on why so many people are caught in the grip of apathy and how to accompany them out of it—a process that takes time and effort—we are hoping to jumpstart the process with the shock of horrific images.

It seems though that the line between apathy and empowerment is a fine one that must be tread very carefully.  In the face of the many obstacles we are facing as a global family towards living in peace and unity, too many such images—or even just one—can cause us to crumble in despair.  We should somehow remain in touch with the grim reality we are faced with while at the same time being far enough from it to not become overwhelmed with despair and fall into apathy.

Something else that seems pretty consistent is the relationship between apathy and the belief that one person cannot make a significant contribution in bettering the world.  I can’t blame people for not thinking that their contribution is vital.  After all, we are being told, both directly and indirectly, and at every turn that we are only cogs in a larger machine that should be left in the hands of others more capable than us.

But there is again a relationship between not using horrific images of others who are suffering and our own belief that we are a significant and important part of the solution.  By respecting the inner nobility of those who are caught in the horrors of today—the wars, the famines, the suffering, the depression—we can remain in touch with our own nobility.  And our own nobility is what reminds us that however humble, we each have a part to play.

The world is in chaos and while we do need to get everyone to push past any sense of apathy they might have, I don’t think that the use of shocking images is the way to go.  It’s neither respectful of the nobility of those who are suffering or of the nobility of those who are consuming the images.  It paralyses those who are already feeling helpless and can paralyse those who are trying to make a difference.

What else can we do, then, to change apathy into action?  I personally wish I could but know that I can’t solve the wars, famines, genocides, and other horrors of the world.  I do know however that I can contribute, in my own neighborhood, to the conversation about unity, peace, and coexistence.  And I know that the most people around the world contribute to this conversation at the level of the neighborhood, the more it will have a global effect.

Not convinced?  Think about it this way.  If I hold a candle in the darkest of night, it will make a little bit of a difference where I stand.  It won’t make a difference at the international level—but what if I used my candle to light something else’s candle?  And then they do the same?  What if millions of candles are lit in a city plunged in darkness?

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