The Informed

Our Social Dysfunction, Part I: Will Apathy Be Our Downfall?



This article is the first in a series on the three big players in our modern-day social dysfunction: apathy, ignorance and greed. These mutually reinforcing qualities of humanity come together to render any social progress impossible and their alliance forms an almost unstoppable machine, one that has the power not only to halt society dead in its tracks, but also to propel it backwards, down into a black hole of tyranny and eventual collapse. In this series, we will look at each one of these problems in turn in an attempt to shed some light on their causes, their effects and on possible solutions, and a fourth installment will focus on the interconnection of the three, because it is important for us to not divide these problems and thus, oversimplify the issue. We need to understand their connection to break this cycle and move forward. This December, 2006 article from The Progress Report put it this way:

As an example of the interplay between ignorance, apathy, and greed, consider the problem of pollution. Suppose the most efficient preventative is a pollution charge based on the damage caused by each pollutant. However, the government regulates pollution instead, a policy failure that needlessly reduces employment and economic growth. One possible cause is ignorance.
But suppose the best policy is known. The owners of the polluting industries seek to influence legislation to prevent the best policy. Because of their campaign contributions and other favours, the government adopts the poorer policy. The cause in this case is greed, both by the influence seeker and by corrupted politicians. Greed depends on the absence of sympathy, and it benefits from ignorance about a social problem.

Apathy; indifference, numbness, spiritlessness, whatever you want to call it, this ailment is considered by many thinkers to be the worst of all modern-day plagues, the one single force that may inevitably prove to be impossible to stop. In an era where access to information is readily available and social problems and cause for action are at unprecedented levels, we continue to grow more and more apathetic, more disaffected. Indeed, each succeeding generation, despite the growing alarms, grows wearier and wearier to the call to action. Whatever the reason, whatever analogy we find useful, it is clear that at a time when we need massive action there is an overwhelming sense of ennui about the whole notion of getting up from one's chair and doing anything at all. And this also accompanies a fundamental shift in our values as well. Take this example from a March 2012 study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

Life goals of American First-Year College Students 1966-2009:

1. What percent of a generation values being well off financially:
Baby Boomers (1966-1978): 45 percent
Generation X (1979-1999): 70 percent
Millennials (2000-2009): 75 percent

2. What percent of a generation values keeping up to date with political affairs:
Baby Boomers (1966-1978): 50 percent
Generation X (1979-1999): 39 percent
Millennials (2000-2009): 35 percent

3. What percent of a generation values becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment:
Baby Boomers (1966-1978): 33 percent
Generation X (1979-1999): 24 percent
Millennials (2000-2009): 20 percent

If you look at voter turnout over the past fifty years, you can see similar trends:


The shift in values over the past five decades is obvious to anyone who has been around that long; even for those of us who haven't. This shift underlies the problem of apathy, but what are the causes of this moral shift? Are we, like the ancient Romans, simply playing out our predestined role as the gluttonous, selfish citizens who consume and don't contribute, while civilization crumbles all around us? (Read this great article on collapse, environment and society). This shift in values and its resulting rise in apathy is multi-fold in its reasons:

  • the negative influence of the mainstream media as a whole as a propaganda machine for capitalism, particularly in how it is used to desensitize the masses 
  • a fundamental lack of empathy toward our fellow man, which is also related to desensitization

The problem with all of this apathy and shifting values is that when we are living in such critical times, where the environment and other looming issues are taking center stage and need to be addressed in radical and effective ways, we allow our apathy to rule. There is no savior coming to save us, and no one else is going to fix these problems for us. When people become apathetic to critical issues, we fail, and when the corporate and political powers that dominate our lives take a stronger and stronger hold over us, they diminish even our power to speak out.

The only way to overcome this problem is through education, and a radical shift in paradigm. Nothing short of a revolution is going to free us from this apathetic culture. We focus on trivialities, things the media tells us to, instead of on the major issues facing us today. We have access to the world's knowledge at our fingertips, yet we watch and consume garbage media and information. We're aware of massive inequality and poverty in the world, yet we do nothing. The Occupy movement and The Arab Spring may have raised awareness about certain issues, but their effects were not lasting. We need to address this problem of an apathetic society head-on and create a culture where this is not tolerated or socially acceptable. We need to wake people up, and information is the tool. Will apathy be our downfall? Not if we don't allow it to be.

The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men - Plato

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