The verse from Deuteronomy employs this phrase in the context of the obligation to return lost objects to the rightful owner. “Indifference” captures the spirit of the verse, and its implications go far beyond returning lost objects.
I cannot recall a time in my life when politics was so partisan, civil discourse so rare, or our democracy so imperiled. Timothy Snyder’s best-selling book On Tyranny draws numerous parallels between Donald Trump’s America and the rise of Nazism in Europe in the 1930s. The analogies are not overblown. Immigrants and people of color are being demonized, hate is being sanctioned, the press is dubbed an “enemy of the people.”
While many people of conscience have redoubled their efforts to enter the public square, too many remain indifferent. We face a torrent of news that is hard to digest and, before we can fully comprehend it, an even more mind-numbing piece of news replaces it. Many citizens retreat from this onslaught, shutting their eyes and disengaging from the political process.
The 18th-century conservative Irish statesman Edmund Burke is quoted as saying: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The Bible said it first though. We cannot afford indifference. There are dozens of local and national nonprofits working to protect our democracy. Choose to support them as well as candidates who prioritize integrity, independence, and working for the common good. Finally, try to heal the partisan divide in America by reaching out to those who do not look like you, think like you, or act like you.
Rabbi Sid Schwarz makes an excellent point: We cannot afford indifference. This rings true especially for young Americans. This fall, as I sat registering my fellow college classmates to vote, I couldn’t help but be disappointed in the hundreds of students who claimed to be too busy, too tired, or simply to not care enough to cast their ballot.
This is not a knock against my generation. In fact, according to the Tufts University newspaper and other sources, youth voter turnout increased significantly during the 2018 midterms. Yet the easiest path to indifference is to never care in the first place. Thus, college students who have never voted before are especially susceptible to apathy.
It is not enough to tell young people that they have to vote for certain politicians or for the sake of civic duty. Instead, we can combat indifference by helping young people understand why they should have a stake in the democratic process — that their voices and actions can help shape the policies of the America that they will inherit.
We need open conversations with young people in which we explore the core values and issues that are most important to us — such as relieving student debt or making affordable healthcare available to a sick relative. Discussing these issues and the values they represent might inspire college students to become active in a political process. If a college student can feel the tangible impact of their vote, then they may be more likely to shed their indifference and head to the polls.
I never understood the power of indifference until I heard a recording of Elie Wiesel’s speech “The Perils of Indifference.” In 1999, Wiesel broadcast to the world details of his life during the Holocaust — a tale of indifference. “Indifference, after all,” he said, “is more dangerous than anger and hatred.… Indifference elicits no response.”
Rabbi Sid Schwarz eloquently describes the dangerous implications of indifference as politics becomes more partisan. Partisanship deepens when citizens choose which “facts” to believe. We listen to the most persistent voices; we operate in an echo chamber where we support only our own notions of the truthfulness of politicians, media, and facts.
As a 16-year-old watching the unconventional 2016 presidential elections, I saw members of my town, State College Pennsylvania, become disinterested as they watched Fox, CNN, and NBC. The community was seduced by indifference, for it is easier to ignore victims than empathize with them. It is, as Wiesel described, “awkward, troublesome to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.”
My peers and I became angry at the apathy we encountered from the same people who control our future. We decided to try to change that course of history. During the entire midterm election campaign, students volunteered to register their peers at Penn State University. This collective student effort to decrease the indifference on campus was inspiring. As I exited the polling station as a first-time voter on Nov. 6, 2018, I heard applause from the people in line around me. They applauded not just for first-time voters, but for the students’ collective desire to act.
“Everyone would vote if they clapped like this,” my friend said as we left. I agreed. Encouraging activism among our friends and family, whether or not we agree with their beliefs, is important because encouragement breeds empathy, the kryptonite of indifference.