How do you fight back? Part 1: Apathy
I am both a feminist and a vegan and this makes people uncomfortable. Either they’re uncomfortable because they don’t want to acknowledge that some of the things we do are terrible, or they’re uncomfortable because they are generally protected by (or in some way identify with) the status quo and feel threatened that I (and others, of course) think there’s something wrong with it.
Despite being a feminist and a vegan for a significant portion of my life, I still don’t know how to deal with either types of reaction.
Some people just don’t want to know that there’s anything wrong with the world. They don’t mind knowing it in an abstract sense. They accept that people far away from Canada are suffering from poverty and lack of protection. They accept that in some places women’s rights are not acknowledged. Those are all other places and, therefore, not something we can do anything about. We can acknowledge it, shake our heads at the sad state of the world, and go on with our lives. It seems to be part of our moral psychology to be moved by the challenges faced by people who are closer in proximity to us. But when it comes to acknowledging problems in Canada, many Canadians just don’t want to know about them because then they’d have to do something. Then they’d feel as though their lack of action made them complicit and they don’t want that. Burying their heads in the sand is better, it’s easier.
This is frustrating because even just being aware that something is a problem can bring about some small-scale changes and these, however small they are, matter. Being aware that intensive factory farming involves very cruel treatment of animals may not make people stop eating meat tomorrow. Yet when they’re at the grocery store undecided about what to buy for dinner, the thought that animals are treated so cruelly may cross their minds and inform their decisions. When they’re looking for recipes online, they may inadvertently come across a vegetarian recipe and not immediately dismiss it. As insignificant as those changes seem, they matter. Maybe it’s not enough but it’s something.
Recently, the Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner released a report on youth suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation. You can find the report here. The population of Pikangikum First Nation is approximately 2,400. 16 Children between the ages of 10 and 19 committed suicide in a span of three years. Approximately 60 children have committed suicide in the last decade. There’s a high rate of domestic violence. There’s a high rate of teen pregnancy. The residents of Pikangikum do not have access to basic resources including, at times, potable water. Teens in Pinkangikum feel that they have no hope, no future. All of these are social problems that lead to a higher incidence of suicide.
In the 5 months leading up to the release of the Ontario Coroner’s report, 3 NHL hockey players committed suicide. Actually, the papers talked about all 3 as suicides but one of hockey players died from substance abuse problems, an accidental overdose. Papers were full of articles and editorials about what we could do to help prevent suicide amongst NHL players. And we should talk about those things because they raise awareness.
After the Coroner’s report was released very few papers reported on the Pikangikum First Nation suicides. Very few editorials were written about the Pikangikum First Nation suicides.
The relationship between First Nations people and the various levels of Government in Canada is complicated and this makes us feel helpless. Even though there’s a clearly identifiable need for basic resources, there’s a lack of trust between the Pikangikum people and the Canadian Government. And who can blame the Pikangikum people? The Canadian Government has treated First Nations horribly. So it’s complicated and therefore no one wants to talk about it and people bury their heads in the sand. Yet if we talked about it half as much as we talked about the NHL hockey player suicides we would be making progress. We’d be acknowledging that something needs to be done and we’d be raising awareness that something needs to be done. In all that talk, maybe we’d start edging our way to a solution. We’re certainly not going to solve these problems by ignoring them.
Canadians have a disproportionate interest in US politics. Some US policies directly affect us and therefore it makes sense to pay attention to American politics. I sometimes suspect, though, that for some the interest in American politics is just another way of burying their heads in the sand. They can talk about how uncivil those tea partiers are, they can talk about how uncivil it is that there are so few social programs to protect the poor, they can get embroiled in the drama of long and dirty election campaigns. All the while, they ignore that there are people living in poverty in Canada and that it is hard to receive social assistance if you don’t have an address and telephone number. They ignore the dirtiness of our election campaigns. They remain apathetic about the problems in Canada because it is easier. Talking about the problems in the US doesn’t require them to change. Talking about the problems in Canada just might make them feel bad if they don’t change.
I come face-to-face with this apathy when I talk about feminism or animal rights. Some people explicitly state that they don’t want to know about it. Some people shrug and claim that there will always be bad things in the world and you can’t get too worked up about it. Some people say that this is the way it has always been and therefore this is the way that it will always be. And in the face of that apathy I feel less hopeful than I do when I’m faced with someone who passionately disagrees with me. I feel powerless.
Of course apathy is not new. Women have been and still are silenced and perhaps apathy is one of the most effective ways of silencing people who are fighting for change. There’s nothing that undercuts an argument more effectively than lack of interest, an unwillingness to listen.
I come away from those conversations feeling drained, hopeless, helpless and ignored. And every time I think that I have to look for a strategy to deal with this because I don’t want to feel helpless. I don’t want to feel tired of fighting.
I’m still looking.
Maybe I’m still looking because I understand how overwhelming it is to read and hear about the scope of the social problems we have. I feel overwhelmed too. I escape at the end of the day by reading fiction, immersing myself in worlds that are better and more pleasant than this one. I have that luxury.
How do you fight back?