2017 minus 56: On apathy, if you can be bothered

Posted: 6 November 2016 in 2017 minus

As I never cease to wonder, one of the joys of friendship is discovering about what things you agree. I mean, sure, you’ll never agree about everything with friends, but for the most part, it’s disagreements on detail. 

You might disagree on how a government should do x or y, but you’ll often, almost always, agree that a government should do x or y. For example, you might agree that taxes should go up for the wealthy, but disagree by how much or what rates. You might similarly disagree about who the next Doctor should be, but you’re likely to agree that there should be a next Doctor. Or not, as the case may be.

I’ve always enjoyed debates with friends about stuff, even good natured arguments.

But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered three not so nice things about myself, three less than praiseworthy attributes.

  1. I’m finding it hard[er] to understand how someone I otherwise respect can hold this view or that
  2. I’m finding it harder to get worked up about some things that friends deeply care about.
  3. I’m struggling to decide which is worse: to not care about an issue… or to not be able to come to a rational conclusion about that issue.

There’s not a lot I can do about 1. or 2. above. For the first, I’m unsure whether it’s me that’s changed or whether the stakes have just become higher, whether the direct importance and relevance of the issues matter to me in a way that they didn’t previously.

For example, Jeremy Corbyn. No matter the many sensible and rational reasons – yes, I’ll grant that – there might be to support what he says he stands for, and what he wants the Labour Party, and a consequent Labour government, to be… I’m finding it harder and harder to maintain friendships with people who overtly and actively support him. In the main it’s because of his record (about which I’ve previously written) on antisemitism. However, I’ll admit there’s also an element of practicalities: it’s unlikely, to put it mildly, that a Labour Party headed by Corbyn will ever achieve government. There’s so much evidence arguing against it and virtually none to the contrary. So, it comes down to a binary position of: support Corbyn and you’re supporting Labour remaining in opposition. And I’ve an issue with that. 

To be fair, however, even if polls, surveys and history argued that he could achieve government I’d still have a problem with Corbyn because of that aforementioned history on antisemitism. Not that he’s necessarily an antisemite (I’m still on the fence over that) but because of his studied, consistent and ongoing indifference to other peoples’ antisemitism, and of a small chunk of his support. And before you’re going to say “you can’t hold him responsible for his supporters’ views!” Ask yourself: do you say the same about Donald Trump and his supporters’ racism?

This is where 1. above crashes violently into 2. Because for some of my friends, something that matters hugely to me isn’t a big issue for them. And before I get all high and mighty about it, maybe I should climb down from the pedestal and look at the issues which matter hugely to my friends, and ask myself why, how, they can not matter as much to me?

One of my friends campaigns to ban greyhound racing, another is hugely against the Grand National. In both cases, animals are injured and often killed either ‘to put them out of their misery’ or in greyhound racing for economic reasons. This is objectively horrible. But I find myself far less worked up about it than I possibly should be. Another friend views the Iraq War as THE most important political event of his life, and gets furious when others give even the slightest credit to Blair’s government for the ‘good’ that it achieved; as far as he’s concerned, reluctant acknowledgment should be all that is given, but only then if Iraq is in scathing terms mentioned as well. Again, I find it hard to muster the rage sufficient to satisfy him.

Yet another friend views circumcision as child abuse. We long ago agreed never to discuss the subject.

Maybe that’s the only answer, but if so it’s an unsatisfactory one.

So let us leave 1. and 2. alone for now – there’s possibly more to say about it, but not right now, and move to 3.

It’s very rare in life, in politics, in anything that there’s a definite, simple, Right and Wrong. It happens, but only rarely. In most cases, in almost all cases, it’s more complicated than that. And any adult owes it to themselves, as well as others, to consider the plural rights and wrongs of a subject before coming to a rational conclusion.

But what if you can’t? What if you can’t conclude anything on a subject because it’s too big, or because you don’t know enough, and can’t find – or don’t want to find – the information that would enable you to do so.

And that’s why I find myself asking mroe and more as time goes past about situations where there is a basic Yes/No moral or political decision:

Which is ‘worse’? 

  • Not caring enough about the matter to make a decision as to which path is ‘right’? 
  • Or not being able to decide which of two opposing positions/arguments has more validity?

It’s tempting – too tempting – to say that the former is always worse. The latter implies at least that you’ve considered the matter carefully and come to a position where you can’t decide.

But is it always worse, really? 

Two major political decisions spring to mind: one just gone, one still to come… Brexit and the US Presidential election.

It is really worse to say that you’ve examined the candidates running for the highest office and still can’t decide, two days out, which to vote for than to admit you don’t care which? Doesn’t saying you can’t decide betray intellectual apathy, whereas the former is just apathy in general?

In some ways, re Brexit, I have more sympathy, just, with the “not caring” attitude; both campaigns were so dishonest that voters had to make a distinct and hard effort to find out the facts. And once each side produced ostensibly independent fact checking responses that were in fact nothing of the sort; and each side cherry picked from genuinely independent sources and attacked other independent sources… it was asking a hell of a lot of voters to pick rationally.

I don’t consider myself unintelligent, but by the end of the campaign, my position hadn’t moved from that when the campaigns started: we kind of, sort of, knew what would happen if we stayed, and we had no fucking clue what would happen if we left, and I’ll take the former over the latter any time.

But it was a gut reaction, one based on feeling, not fact.

If I had to make the decision based on pure, rational fact? I don’t know. I’d have struggled to make a decision because I didn’t know what the facts were. I knew what they weren’t, but not what they were. I knew who was lying but didn’t know who was telling the truth.

And so, I ask again:

Which is ‘worse’? 

  • Not caring enough about the matter to make a decision as to which path is ‘right’? 
  • Or not being able to decide which of two opposing positions/arguments has more validity?

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

  1. My answer to that one is that it is so context-dependent that we’d be spending weeks if not months working out the specifics. Which is not an answer I consider very helpful to you, but based on your own experience as explained above, as well as my own as I’ve lived it…there it is.

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