American Culture

Is apathy socially redeeming?

Many an activist and other members of the liberal left (sorry, conservatives, there’s nothing derogatory about that term you use for us) has torn out his or her hair over apathy on the part of the general public. Why do so few Americans care about inhumanity and injustice? Worse, why do they often vote against their own interests?

What compounds our frustration and bewilderment over our fellow Americans’ negligible participation in the political process is the overarching irony. We’re citizens of the nation that put participatory democracy on the map for God’s sake. How did we arrive at this sad state of affairs, which I call the enduring enigma of the American public?

Among the many reasons advanced, first here’s a selection from the obvious:

1. Our “dumbing down” thanks to the “escapism” found in television and other electronic media in general.
2. In the same vein, the isolation of modern life, which militates against congregating for the common good.
3. Loss of faith in legislators, most of whom are perceived to be on the pad.

Next, three explanations for apathy with which we’re likely less familiar:

1. According to polling and focus groups conducted by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, authors of a respected work of political science entitled Stealth Democracy, Americans are adverse to the conflicts, debates, and compromises inherent in participatory democracy. In other words, though we may still be rabble, we’ve had the rough and tumble ironed out of us.
2. Some libertarians maintain that the size of our government and the sheer number of issues that fall under its auspices leave us standing, jaws agape, in stunned silence. Thus do they make it seem like the success of participatory government is dependent on the implementation of one of their pet causes, downsizing government.
3. Speaking in psychological terms, we don’t speak up for ourselves because we suffer from low self-esteem and don’t believe we (nor others) deserve justice.

This final rationale for apathy is mine:

There’s a glitch in our wiring: In other words, blame God. He, or whatever higher intelligence — or lack thereof — to which you subscribe, endowed certain individuals with leadership qualities. But He (or She or the Nonentity) failed to note that left little space on the hard drives of their DNA for ethics. Equally appalling, it also seems to have escaped His attention that said failings needed to be compensated for by a mechanism in the rest of us that would act as a safety net for our leaders’ moral failings.

Apathy, of course, aids and abets corrupt leaders. But it wasn’t until the publication of a book in 1996 that I realized apathy might be socially redeeming. Titled Who Are You, Really? (Carroll & Graf), it was written by Gary Null, the noted (and controversial) nutritionist who is also that rarity in this day and age — a Renaissance man.

You may have heard of a personality assessment questionnaire used by prospective employers, among others, called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If it was an acknowledged product of Carl Jung’s book Personality Types, Myers-Briggs, in turn, seems to have been the inspiration for the categories into which Null divides us humans. You can find the heading under which most of us fall in his chapter “Most of the People You’ll Ever Meet: Adaptive Supportive.”

What, you ask, is an Adaptive Supportive? Null explains:

Adaptive Supportives generally do functional work. They may be clerical-level employees or blue-collar workers in government agencies or factories. They may work at the checkout counters in retail establishments or at construction sites. … sticking with a job year after year sometimes constitute an unrecognized act of heroism on the part of members of this group.

In fact. . .

Adaptive Supportives play an absolutely essential role in our culture, as in any. Without them, the inner workings of society would simply cease to function. … Because there are so many of them, their values and way of life pervade our culture.

Summing up. . .

Adaptive Supportives are the followers in life — the vast majority of the people who adapt their lives to prevailing belief systems. … Their whole lifestyle is supportive of the status quo and they thrive on the sense of belonging that comes from “fitting in.”

In other words, it’s time to stop libeling them as apathetic. It’s just how they’re wired: Their passivity is in the service of fulfilling their role as the bedrock of society. But, as with all personality types, you take the good with the bad. Of course, the liberal left is more familiar with how harmful they can be to society, as well as themselves. Gary Null again:

The real danger with Adaptive Supportives is that they will cling to faulty belief systems. They have a strong sense of trust in one authority, and they feel vulnerable and threatened if an idea or person challenges that authority. … They relinquish control over their own lives, giving more power to authority figures than they do themselves. That gives them a myopic view of life and closes off many avenues of growth and transformation.

Can They Transcend Their Limitations?

Here’s Null’s answer:

When Adaptive Supportives do change, it’s usually because an authority figure has given them “permission” to do so. When the authority in their lives changes, they’ll shift course and go along with whatever the leader expects of them. If the pope were to allow women to become priests, the masses would adapt to the change and support it. … The irony is that Adaptive Supportives could be a tremendous force in society, simply by virtue of their numbers.

Resolving to act against injustice tends to result from personal growth, about which Null writes:

. . . Adaptive Supportives must recognize that there is nothing intrinsic about them that prevents personal growth. … But they have to take charge of their own development. They can’t wait for some big boss figure to give them permission to change, to say it’s okay. The few Adaptive Supportives who do break through the “big-boss barrier” become very excited about their own untapped potential. … The catch is that they may need someone to work with them — generally a more dynamic personality — to keep them motivated and to supply structure and direction.

Just because Adaptive Supportives embody the turning-ship cliché doesn’t mean we should be discouraged. In fact, Null’s analysis should encourage us to cease lecturing them and throwing up our hands in exasperation. Instead, engaging them individually, we can draw out their needs and fears, and address them without the harshness — toward themselves as well as others — to which Adaptive Supportives are accustomed.

Still, it can’t be denied that engaging them on subjects such as politics, culture, and the future of the planet can be a thankless task. The most hidebound are best left to stew in their own juices. But, in the long run, most Adaptive Supportives would probably be glad to be weaned off those who prey upon their insecurities.

5 replies »

  1. I like how you got through this without once resorting to the word “sheep”… 🙂

    Snark aside, there is much to consider here. For sure, the complexity of modern life is a problem. People, even dumb ones, can often find their way to workable solutions when they’re dealing with something they can get their heads around. But as you note, there is SO MUCH to know that it’s impossible for even the most brilliant minds in our society to know it all. Lippmann described this phenomenon in striking detail – if you were to read key passages from Public Opinion you’d never believe he was writing in the 1920s. He so perfectly describes our present society, and I think a lot of us tend to think that the world early in the last century was probably a lot easier to comprehend.

    How can people who don’t understand an issue (or a lot of them) possibly make good policy decisions on those issues? Well, they can’t, and if you don’t understand an issue you can’t make a reliable decision on who to vote for to make those decisions for you, either. All of which led Lippman to propose a system of meritocractic bureaucracy, whereby complex decisions were entrusted to those who actually did understand the issues.

    Not a perfect solution, but it’s impossible to argue that it’s worse than what we have without a blind resort to pure dogma.

    In a context such as this, frustration is bound to mount. You try and make a good decision, but it keeps going to hell on you, and a certain class of corrupt opportunists, who fully understand how to profit from a baffled citizenry, seem to be the only ones getting by. The worse it is for you, the better it is for them.

    Circus be damned – if he were alive today PT Barnum would be president. For life.

    So we find ourselves in a world where apathy is the only way to survive. Caring is a behavior that gets punished, routinely and brutally.

    Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s a survival trait.

    Great piece….

  2. Provocative, Russ. Indeed. Thanks.

    In trying to sort out this issue for myself, I realize I’m not so much apathetic as tired. Perhaps fatigue — from dealing with family dynamics, the damn boss at work, living paycheck to paycheck, working for the man all day long, watching inflation erode miniscule pay raises — just guts any energy an Adaptive Supportive, or anyone else, might want to gin up to deal with political choices.

  3. The above article presents some interesting insights.

    However, it is doesn’t apply any comparative analysis by including present day or past societiess into the analysis.

    As a result, it posits certain common behaviors that he observes in today’s US societies as somehow universal behavioral traits that are (implicitly) wired into us.

    The trouble is that anthropological, historical and sociological evidence doesn’t support these universal traits of a supposed adaptive supportive societal personality.

    For example, hunterer and gatherers are very democratic and have developed extremely sophisticated social methods of mediating differences of opinions and suggestions between individuals and groups in order to produce a democratic and concensual result.

    It may be that the more complex, corporate- and elite-dominated a society becomes, the more the elite promote and sell increasingly sophisticated commodities that divert the individual’s attention from their own imagination, rational democratic discussions and actions, and a proper understanding of the individual’s relationship to each other, nature and cultural/intellectual production.

    In other words, the economic elite, under the rule of capital, cannot afford the luxury of an informed, rational and active citizenry; instead, the economic elite must support producing an individual interested in consumption of commodities, a sucker for constant commercials, and a stooge for constant and irrational fear-mongering in order to better control the herd.