Of traffic and Tamils, apathy and action

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While reading the news coverage of the recent Tamil protests in Toronto, one could easily be misled to believe that the protests are neither in support of human rights nor in opposition to a particular political situation which has degenerated beyond redemption, because neither of these points seem news worthy. 

Instead, we are told by J. Jonah Jameson that: 'Tamil protesters in Toronto hold the city hostage, disrupt traffic!'  Poor Torontonians; weren’t you able to reach your TiVod Oprah episode on time? ‘Who cares about the brown-er people over in Tamilastan?  Is anyone, like, Twittering about it, because if it’s not, like, written out in 140 characters or less, and I can’t access it when I want to, then I don’t really care, okay?’

This recent coverage reminded me of a recent dinner out, when I was accompanied by Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women.  By this evening, Ottawa had already been witness to several Tamil protests.  Seated at the table next to me were two women in their late twenties. 

Between lively discussions about the numerous men with whom one of the girls was sleeping, the latest in-depth celebrity gossip and the incessant and frenzied checking of blackberries -- if it happens and no one Facebooks, Twitters, Blogs, Texts, SMSs it, did it really happen? -- the two women stopped to ogle the protesters filtering through the downtown core. 

As they stared, they uttered these sublime gems:

"Who the fuck are they?"

"Who cares. They, like, totally held up traffic last week. You're in Canada! God. Get over it, right?"

No doubt that God wept at hearing His name in such apathetic reference.

I wish I could tell you that I stood up and challenged these two sorry creatures.  That I had let loose on (what should be) unacceptable apathy.  I wish that this was a story with the kind of ending that would make any progressive thinker stand up and cheer, covered in goose bumps. 

But, alas it is not. 

I sat, staring at my spicy tuna, wondering how it was acceptable that these two young women and so many like them eschew their responsibility to the rest of humanity.  How is it possible for them to assume that being in any one part of the world means that they are not responsible to those in other parts of the world?

I wondered how they could, without hesitation, then slip into a conversation about Perez Hilton without a sense of shame about humanity’s capacity to cruelty. 

Clearly, I wasn’t only reacting to the two women (though, many would argue that my reaction was too kind), but rather to the aggressive apathy that they represented.

Freedom to choose

Many of us were taught that it is our duty to ensure that, to the best of our ability, others are not mistreated; we were taught to always remain responsible for our actions.  Where possible, there is a responsibility to stop, to alleviate, or merely to acknowledge the pain of others.  If all we can do is offer a silent nod in recognition of pain, then we owe it to the individual to bear witness to their suffering.  The coward’s sentiment of ‘I don’t owe him/her/you anything’ is never uttered when we look out at this world.

Instead, we respect the pain of others and understand that this elevates the respect we have for ourselves; we understand that our identity is contingent on and is an extension of all identities and this is how we evolve into the recognition that we are indeed all connected.

Today, this seems to be a concept which is lost on many, and is arguably a reflection of a greater misunderstanding of one shade of ‘modernity’ which is that we are, and we ought to be ‘free.’  Free to do whatever we wish and behave as we please; free to be assholes; free to be bullies; free to be mean; free to be rude; free to take advantage; free to be spoiled; free to be entitled. 

We are free. Free of responsibility; exempt. Free to be oppressors?  Free to be pedophiles?  Free to be rapists?  Free to commit war crimes?  Free to steal natural resources without paying a fair price?  Free to dump our waste on the shores of another’s home?  Free to wage war in the interest of corporate greed?

Do you accept such freedoms?  I do not, and I would argue that we can not.  Not if we believe in social justice, because to believe in social justice is to believe that we are not free of guilt and responsibility when we commit a crime against another.

But you are free to choose otherwise.  You are free to be apathetic.  You are free to be silent.  You are free to be complicit.

When responsibility no longer has any meaning or relevance, apathy becomes par for the course.  Apathy is, precisely a lack of responsibility to our fellow humans.  It is the lack of recognition that anyone, anyone, who suffers in any part of the world, is someone who is suffering as an extension of our selves.

How do we tackle such aggressive apathy? 

For those who Believe, it is liberation theologists such as Daniel Berrigan and Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz -- more commonly known as Malcolm X, and although he has never been truly associated with liberation theology, as it has traditionally been premised on the Bible, a strong case to label him as such can be made -- who lead the way in our world view.  It is through the constant upholding of God at the forefront of our minds that we may avoid, among many other things, the fall into apathy.

The flipside of this theology-based approach is for those made uncomfortable by the confines of religion (and to those who refuse to reconcile freedom of choice with a belief in any omnipotent all-knowing power). For them, there is Sartre’s love letter Existensialism is a Humanism, in which he states, “When we say that man takes responsibility for himself, we say more than that -- he is in his choices responsible for all men,” and that “man is in anguish, meaning that he who chooses cannot escape a deep responsibility for all humanity.”   

Human behaviour has no mathematical equation; freedom of will is the guarantor of this.  And so, we can strategize and plan to tackle apathy and we may not succeed.  Or we might.  Either way, all we can hope to do is struggle forward on an individual basis if we believe in any of the above sentiments.  We can take care to make change even in the smallest of circumstances.  We can promise and then we can act on our promise to address apathy when it enters our homes.

So, next time I find myself seated across from anyone who is apathetic – whether I know them or not – I have a duty, and I will hold true to this duty, to challenge that apathy. 

Next time, I will not stare at my spicy tuna and wax philosophic about apathy inside of my own head.  Instead, I promise that I will respond to and challenge that apathy.  I promise not to be embarrassed of this soapbox on which I type.  Also, I will no longer call it a soapbox and instead refer to it as my world view, and that which guides all of my actions, from the way I treat my family to the way I approach my understanding of global citizenship.

I promise to remind myself that I am free to be aware and to exist in a state of consciousness.  I promise to remember, at every waking moment, that I am free to bear witness. 

The question remains, then, what do you promise?


Maha Zimmo has a Master of Arts degree in Legal Theory, and concentrated her research on the Zionization of popular news culture. A regular contributor to rabble, she writes from Ottawa.

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