December 16, 2021


Arguing for Social Apathy

By: Matt Hampton

Conservatives complain often enough about the “woke Left,” but one of the problems with “wokeism” is that it goes beyond Left or Right.  The excessive analysis of everything based on ideology and politics is destructive to individual happiness.

As technology continues to make our lives more interconnected, it’s exposed us to a variety of social issues throughout the world, from climate change to Chinese human rights abuses. And with the rise of social awareness, there is this feeling of obligation to be concerned about how our actions impact the world. However, this social concern can become overwhelming and impractical in the face of a complex world with seemingly never ending problems. I don’t mean that people should only be concerned about themselves, but being a good person and helping people in your own life is entirely different from trying to fix the world’s problems.

Maybe when a concerned mob condemns Dave Chappelle or “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or classic rock songs or [take your pick of the latest cancel-culture story], the real problem is not that they are incorrect that these things promote socially negative ideas, but rather that identifying things through this lens is exhausting. It creates a world where nothing can be enjoyed for its own sake without analyzing every possible externality. It’s the same mentality of people who want to ban violent video games, Quentin Tarantino films, or rock music because of its negative social effects. Whatever the objective, it subjugates the pursuit of individual happiness to social duty, which is tiresome and leaves people craving apolitical relief, especially when it seems impossible to live in a way that’s truly morally innocent. 

In season one of Netflix’s Sex Education (by no means a right-wing show) the self-described “woke” teenage protagonist refers to high school dances as “an appropriated American tradition that celebrates sexism and peddles an unrealistic portrayal of romantic love.” But when his romantic interest shows interest in the dance, he shrugs off his ideological misgivings and asks her. The search for enjoyment outweighs ideological piety. The insistence on social consciousness is also satirized through the character Britta Perry in Community and Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation

Nineteen Eighty-four is mentioned so often regarding censorship, authoritarianism, and government surveillance that it’s become a cliche. But George Orwell’s novel also shows the joylessness of a society in which ideology is all-consuming. “Duty to the Party and the State” is the driving force behind every aspect of life—entertainment, recreation, even sex—and the desire for a private life is considered suspicious:

In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreation: to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: OWNLIFE, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.

For another example, take veganism. Even though many people are aware of the cruelty of factory farming and environmental consequences of meat-based diets, few decide to give up eating animals. Those who do are stereotyped as preachy, even more so if they condemn others for their food choices. 

I’m a hypocrite, because I’ve started a pescetarian diet, in part for environmental reasons (though I’ve also done it in the interest of my health). Though some people are drawn to plant-based food, many crave meat (I do), find vegetarianism impractical, and eventually turn back to eating meat. There’s also the question of how much you need to abstain from. I’ve given up meat, but what about the human rights abuses and environmental problems of the fishing industry? If I eliminate fish, what about the pests that are killed during crop production? To truly protect animals, do I have to convert to Jainism and sweep the ground in front of me as I walk to avoid stepping on insects?

How much should I agonize over every action I take, trying to calculate and weigh its impact on the environment, society, human rights, the economy, COVID-19, etc.? 

The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer wrote in his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” that individuals are morally obligated to donate their surplus wealth to poor countries because people who are starving need money more than people using it to buy luxuries. To not do so, Singer said, would be like refusing to save a drowning child because you don’t want to ruin your clothes. If taken to its logical conclusion, this principle would require you to donate all of your non-essential possessions, and yet this seems absurd to most people. 

It’s hard enough for an individual to know with certainty what’s right for his own life, let alone predict what will benefit the world. Whatever sacrifices we make may be counterproductive, fruitless, or part of a sisyphean struggle against massive problems. For example, recycling seems like an easy way to reduce waste, but much of our recycling actually ends up in landfills.

Abandoning social responsibility may not make the world better. It would be a contradiction to claim that it does. But since the scourge of politics infects life with its dutiful austerity, we should focus on living virtuous lives while pursuing our own happiness instead of trying to make a wider social impact.