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Mark Peach
 
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On the perils of indifference

12 June 2014, 07:22

Elie Wiesel, the author who survived the Jewish Holocaust, gave a speech called The Perils of Indifference a few years ago. In his speech, Wiesel said:

What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means "no difference." A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?

Of course, indifference can be tempting -- more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.

Is indifference, Wiesel seems to be asking, a state of being necessary in which we allow ourselves to be absorbed into a numbness in order to keep our sanity and reduce the interruptions of surrounding reality? Is it a state of mind in which, of necessity, we reduce others "to an abstraction" so that they don't become a problem?

If it is, then it may follow that the reality around us is so unpleasurable as to make our retreat from each other necessary for us to keep our sanity, or at least our equilibrium.

Or why else would we anaesthetise ourselves with splendid isolation?

Choosing indifference could mean that we have lost, or never had in the first place, the faculties to deal with those unpleasant realities, troubles, pain and despair.

Which is it? Both?

Reading through and thinking about Wiesel's comment one can't help but be drawn to the writer Chekhov's brilliant The Darling, in which the protagonist Olenka, cannot ever quite connect to her world and mothballs herself from its harsh realities through relationships only with those closest to her.

In a sense, she reacts to the world only through those close to her. On her own she does not own the faculties she needs to get on with her life. In fact, whenever one love moves on she seems to settle into an inertia until the next one comes along. She is, in a real sense, and using Wiesel's definition of the word, in that strange and unnatural place where there is no difference between things so that no one thing needs to be encountered on its own terms.

I may be a little cynical here, but I seem to sense Olenka in many I encounter: people who are shutting themselves off from the world and wrap themselves only in those around them, in a sort of indifference, in which, to use Wiesel's words, anyone outside of themselves is no more than an abstraction without personality, context, and being, and so need not be seen and felt.

It is easy to see why this indifference is so prevalent. Is our world not so uncomfortable that we need a concentrated retreat from it so we can retain our sense of numbness. 

But there are consequences: the further we retreat into indifference, the more we lose our ability to relate when we need to; and ironically, the more we retreat into indifference, the more we lose the tools to relate to those closest to us - as Olenka did - so that eventually we are unable to feel and see those closest to us.

In the end, indifference to the outside world, to others, makes us indifferent to everyone, including those who accompany us in our indifference.

 Or are we losing the ability to deal with the world on its terms?

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