Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

The Politically Voiceless Youth

At this time 4 years ago, a Pew survey reported that 28% of young people – those born between 1978 and 2000 – were giving a lot of thought to the presidential candidates, while 24% said they were following election news closely. This same survey found that those numbers have declined to 13% and 17% respectively.

It is no wonder politicians don’t listen to us, and why our interests aren’t taken seriously – our voices are largely absent in the public discourse. We simply don’t register in the consciousness of the political class (although OWS is arguably a start, it remains to be seen how many young people actually get involved).

This raises the question: is the system troubled because we don’t care enough to fix it? Or do we not care enough to fix it because it is troubled? I think it’s a bit of both, given how the two dynamics feed off one another, creating this endless cycle of political paralysis and continued indifference and pessimism.

For the record, I’m not discounting other factors behind our political stagnation, like the increasingly plutocratic nature of our political system, or the venality of our politicians. But clearly, the pervasive apathy and cynicism towards politics that defines our generation bodes ill for our prospects, especially into the future.