Sunday, April 29, 2007

Apathy is a Learned Response

When I was a child, I noticed much more courtesy than people display today. Consider, for example, driving. School buses used to pull over when a few cars trailed behind. With only some exception, not today. “Hey, I’m doing my job. You’ll all just have to wait” is the apparent message. Or, consider farm tractors. My recollection of rural life includes farmers always driving to the side when a car approached. Not now. Some happily oblivious daydreamer plugs along at 10 mph, blocking traffic completely for a few miles on the way to the fields. Construction crews have also changed, replacing concern for the normal flow of commuter traffic with concern only for the construction job--travelers beware. Often several lanes are blocked for weeks although no one actually does any work there.

The change in driving habits is reflected elsewhere. Store clerks look up from their paperwork--or personal phone call--with annoyance aimed at the inconsiderate patron trying to give the business money. Newspaper deliveries often land in the mud, since apparently anywhere on the customer’s ground is close enough. Workers are even annoyed at customers for the workers’ mistakes--one sub shop, informed I had asked for Russian dressing, not mayonnaise, simply added a layer of Russian to the already thick coating of mayonnaise.

Where does this disregard for others originate? It’s taught, albeit unintentionally. “Why doesn’t my teenager respect authority, even mine?” you wonder, while speeding along at 75 mph in defiance of the law. “The government takes too much of my money as it is,” you lament as you fudge the numbers on your tax return to yield a more favorable, if dishonest, outcome. Even promises to the closest people in our lives seem to mean little, since half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. Television, society, the Internet or whatever scapegoat du jour isn’t the problem. No need to leave the comfort of your home.

So when commentators today note that political apathy appears to continually grow, I’m not at all surprised. I remember my parents and teachers speaking of leaders with respect. even though they often disagreed with those leaders. Today’s parents and teachers much more often mention leaders in glaringly disparaging tones. They are quick to attack, but they’re uninterested in the specifics of all those boring political topics like war, poverty, inadequate health care, unemployment and social justice. Sure, they’ll try and cover themselves with proclamations that the candidates for public office are all the same, that the ballot offers a poor selection, but those complaints never seem to spur participation in selection of those candidates. Judging is so much easier.

Today’s citizens aren’t discourteous or apathetic; they’re doing exactly what their elders taught them to do. What society needs instead is for those younger citizens to rebel--to reject their upbringing and do the right thing by taking an active, thoughtful, responsible role in the world. Maybe they can teach their elders a thing or two.


No comments: