Celebrating Indifference – PCS

A healthy society depends on indifference and Williams is no exception.

I’ll lead my argument with a question. What quality best defines the totalitarian state?

Is it the presence of a strong figurehead? The use of propaganda? Institutionalized violence? Militarization?

Even a cursory examination of first-world democracies will show we share these features with our totalitarian counterparts. The United States’ government has a symbolic leader who embodies the nation, regularly appeals to the emotions of its people (often without reference to any form of logos), retains the option to violently put down protest, and boasts the strongest military in the world, maintained at exorbitant expense.

So what distinguishes America from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia?

Very little other than the civil liberties we still retain. Now most people have an image associated with civil liberty, and particularly freedom of speech. It is that of a righteous protestor battling injustice with a megaphone and a placard. But in reality this profile represents only a very small minority of those who reap and represent the benefits of liberty.

The crowning achievement of a free society is not the protestor but the couch-potato. In my mind the final victory over collective tyranny is represented by this paragon of individual contentment , sitting on an absurdly comfortable chair and watching a mindless movie of his own choosing. Now what is going in such a person’s head?

Not the congressional deadlock. Not abortion laws. Not gay rights. Not our children’s future. Not how things are going in the Middle East. Perhaps this person will think of these things later. Perhaps they will not. A healthy and truly free society allows for people to be absorbed in its issues to the extent they wish, always leaving open the option to be simply left unbothered in the pursuit of those small, unassuming rites that constitute day to day happiness.

After all it is this individual- not the vaunted democratic protestor- that represents a true foil to the totalitarian citizen. This is because the totalitarian citizen is finally marked out by his passion for the cause, progress, collective change. In a word, his relentless participation in the machinery of public life.

Thus hopefully I have answered my question: the quality that best defines the totalitarian state is its lack of respect for indifference.

Now, what does it mean to respect indifference?

It means recognizing that not everyone cares about what you care about, and if they do, only rarely to the same degree; it means not insisting others are either for you or against you; it means respecting public spaces and not making them unpleasant for others; it means minding your own business; and it means recognizing that people are not required to agree with you, and further more, most do not care enough to even argue.

One minute on Yik-Yak will show the deep degree of indifference that exists at Williams. Students are not writing essays about  the ridiculousness of microaggressions, the abundance of administrators we possess, rampant political-correctness, etc. No, they are making jokes about them (that is when they are not giving updates from the bathroom). The reigning emotion is not anger but amusement, which gives me all sorts of hope because it reveals the degree to which the idea of the Williams student as a hyper-involved, supernaturally-sensitive progressive, or alternatively a repressed conservative, to be largely a myth.

The Williams student-body is a transient collection of 2,000 intelligent young people with a broad set of perspectives, aims, and senses of humor (that last one is important). It is a weird expectation that we would all see eye to eye and care about exactly the same things in similar ways. It is also a weird expectation that such collectively accepted language as microaggression, bias, trigger, heteronormativity, privelege, etc. would resonate with all who come here. But weirdest of all is the fact that up until recently one intellectual framework, that of modern American academic liberalism, has managed to predominate in the public arena and stand as a general representative for the student body’s thoughts, modes of expression, and world-views.

Thankfully, through the hard work of a few students (but, if we’re honest, mostly Yik-Yak) this illusion has begun to dissipate; or, in other words, our indifference- with all its weird, insensitive charm- has begun to shine through.

But then I am too easily annoyed to live up the ideal I am advancing here. The true unsung hero of Williams is the person who regularly enjoys himself, listens to both sides of an argument (but not too closely), and has learnt to get on with the business of living in an environment that constantly pushes a crisis state. Such people tend to congregate on lawns, couldn’t recite their GPA off-hand, probably would never visit this site, and most likely own a frisbee; but  perhaps I’m stereotyping.

Regardless, as long as there are people capable of retaining and expressing a reasonable level  of indifference to all the storms that rage on in dear old Billsville then one blanket mission can never define our community, which is exactly the way things should be. How boring and horrible Williams would be if the stories it told about itself were true!

So thank you to those truly indifferent people who keep Williams sane, humorous, easygoing, diverse, and bearable.

Please, keep on ignoring the good fight!



4 thoughts on “Celebrating Indifference – PCS

  1. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
    –Martin Luther King, Jr.

    It is a gift that some in our society can be indifferent, but to me it is a sad misuse of that gift to ignore the problems that we face as a community or even worse, see them and not be driven to try to change them.

  2. The performance of indifference on a campus so polarized is an act of radicalism that I think often goes unacknowledged. Often when issues arise two loud opposing voices will emerge, and we all forget that we’re not bound by the binary. We can choose any number of other options, one of which is indifference. So to GE I would suggest that indifference is not the same as silence, and that it has value.

  3. I agree that avoiding polarization has definite value, but I think there is an additional component of indifference as it is used in this article. The indifferent person “sitting on an absurdly comfortable chair and watching a mindless movie of his own choosing” or one who “listens to both sides of an argument (but not too closely),” does not seem to just be avoiding polarization, but instead avoiding trying to understand the issue fully. I think there are many people that are passionate about changing things for the better who do not fit into the typical radical liberal–radical conservative binary, but the last thing I would describe these people as is indifferent. I believe that not acting is a completely sensible and valuable thing to do in many situations. But I do not think it is right to avoid trying to understand issues or where other people are coming from, and I also think that is important that people try to address issues that they believe are having a significant negative impact.

  4. I think I’ve been slightly misunderstood.

    Activism is what allows a culture to progress, as it helped America to progress in the 60s, and more recently in the gay-rights movement. Many activists number among the most productive and well-intentioned members of our society, both at Williams and nationally.

    This is not the same thing, however, as saying that activism is without its dangers. There are so many causes in the world: disease, hunger, slavery and sex-trafficking, homophobia, sexism, racism, global warming, etc. One person cannot possibly devote their time and attention to all of them. Thus it is necessarily true that most people are disinterested in most humanitarian causes, not in the sense that they disregard their importance, but rather in the sense they are not invested in them and do not know or wish to learn about their specifics.

    The real problem is thus when activists think their cause is so important that it must be everyone’s cause, overriding the injunctions of politeness or logic and swiftly souring public spaces with a strident and accusatory form of protest. When activism crosses this boundary it ceases to advocate for change and begins to shove a world-view down others’ throats, polarizing those it targets while implicitly claiming a moral high-ground. This happens daily on our hopelessly politicized campus.

    It is great if you have taken the cause of racism, sexism, or homophobia as your own. But that does not give you the right to define our community’s purpose and daily experience through this lens, particularly when this lens is distorted through appeals to emotion and outright exaggeration. Students may be generally disinterested in this aspect of campus culture and still qualify as conscientious members of the community. More to the point, if everyone thought and acted in a way similar to that vocal, politicized minority who so often dominate our public discourse this school would swiftly become unbearable.

    The activist type is necessary for a community’s health, but a society dominated by activists, and politicization more generally, is sick.

    It is inevitable that people will be indifferent to things others find important. Each of us has our own cause, thus it is not right that a handful of causes come to define what makes a morally involved Williams student. This realization must be respected if our campus culture is to be kept from becoming a political battleground rife with exaggerated accusations, bombastic language, unpleasant and humorless dialogue, and self-righteousness.

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