The Perils of Indifference
In 1999, a Holocaust survivor gave us a powerful reminder.
Elie Wiesel had been invited to the White House by Bill and Hillary Clinton as a part of their Millennium Lecture series. He was there to talk about his story and his vision for the future.
He began with a memory of a particular day in April, 1945.
It was the day that he was freed from Buchenwald concentration camp. He remembered, specifically, how grateful he felt for the reaction of the soldiers that liberated him; their rage and their compassion at what they saw.
It’s something he would never forget.
He contrasted their reaction with the response of the world leading up to that moment: the reluctance of most world leaders, the corporations that helped drive the Nazi German economy, and the general willful blindness.
He ended by reflecting on how we might look back on the past century and whether or not we had learned from our mistakes. In many ways, he left the stage with an air of hope.
The lesson, which extends far beyond just the fight for human rights, was about the cause and effect of indifference. It was about why those atrocities were allowed to take place in spite of the world knowing about them.
It was about the indecision that was made.
Indecision Is a Decision
Indifference often isn’t a complete lack of care. In practice, it’s the option to take the easy way out in spite of awareness. The result is an indecision.
This form of indifference relies on ignorance. We know what’s going on, and we know what’s needed, but because it’s hard, we choose to ignore what we know, and we let things play out.
As Wiesel said in his speech, “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.”
Throughout the Second World War, the allies were aware of the horrors of the Holocaust while it was happening. Undoubtedly, they knew it was wrong, and intervention made sense. They also knew that if they did intervene the scales would likely be tipped.
That said, it would be ugly. In the end, by acting sooner, they might have saved more lives, but they also would’ve put more of their own skin in the game. It would’ve been costly in more ways than one. Would it have been worth the compromise? In hindsight, most would say so.
Regardless, the allies maintained their focus on the war and not the victims. Of course, none of the atrocities can be blamed on anyone other than the Nazis, but by not acting, the aggressor — the side with the already favorable odds — benefited when they otherwise might not have.
Indecision is a decision. Ignorance, when we know we should act, doesn’t suddenly stop the world from spinning. It goes on, and the path with the favorable odds ends up getting taken.
If the scales can and should be tipped, it’s on us to tip them, even if it’s hard.
Decisions Reflect Values
We all have an idea of who we think we are, but more often than not, this idea is closer to fantasy than it is a reality. Most of us would agree that we believe in qualities like kindness, hard work, and persistence; that we live by these measures. However, that doesn’t always show in our actions.
Instead of labeling ourselves deterministically as kind or hardworking, it’s more apt to think of ourselves as people who strive to be kind or hardworking. This may seem like a matter of semantics, but the act of changing how we think directly ties these values to our decisions rather than our opinions.
In his speech, Wiesel gave the example of the MS St. Louis ship that sailed from Hamburg to Cuba carrying 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazis. Though they all had visas before arrival, almost all of them were denied entry both as tourists and refugees.
When they turned to the US and Canada, they were also rejected. They were forced to return to Europe, and it’s estimated that a quarter of the passengers died during the Holocaust.
At that time, if we measured those countries for their values based on their actions, they would all have fallen short. Of course, politics is far more complicated than that, but it isn’t too hard to see where these kinds of situations play out in our own lives.
If you witness an act of bullying, it‘s easy to look the other way. It doesn’t affect you, and few blame the bystander for inaction. You may as well not have seen it. That said, if you value kindness, your actions in those moments are what count.
Decisions and indecisions — not thoughts or opinions — reflect values.
All You Need to Know
Elie Wiesel spent his life fighting for the world to not forgot what happen. His message will live on through his writing, including on the pages of the haunting narrative he called Night.
That day at the White House, Wiesel served a reminder with application beyond just his story.
Indifference is an easy way out of making a hard choice; often, a choice with compromise and with loss. It tends to result in indecision, which many of us forget is also a decision.
If we choose to be neutral when we know we should react, we confirm the weight of balance to the side that already has it, even if interference could change that fact. This applies across all facets of life.
To fight this, we need to start by realizing that our decisions actually reflect our values. We’re not who we think or image we optimistically are. We’re a product of the actions we take.
Rather than deterministically labeling ourselves with the value we hope to represent, it’s more productive to disassociate ourselves completely and simply strive to be what we hope. This way, we can measure how close we are to the ideal based on what we do, not our optimistic beliefs.
The perils of indifference show themselves throughout life. It’s on us to care.