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An Anatomy of People's Apathy 

 
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ByTarek Heggy

The pattern of behaviour displayed by the victims of poverty differs from one culture to another. In some cultures, it takes the form of a defiant refusal to succumb to the grip of poverty and an openly rebellious expression of that refusal; in others it engenders an attitude of resignation marked by a docile acceptance of what fate has decreed. Many factors determine which of the two patterns will prevail. Societies which have been subjected for much of their history to tyranny and oppression and with a tradition of venerating their rulers will tend to exhibit the second pattern, accepting their lot philosophically and expressing their disillusionment by using the weapon of sarcasm against public officials, but only in private conversations conducted behind closed doors. In some countries, this mechanism gives rise to political jokes which reflect what people would have wanted to say openly but which, in the absence of available channels, they are forced to express in epigrammatic form. The ability of some of the political jokes thus spawned to encapsulate prevailing opinions and impressions in terse, witty aphorisms is sometimes nothing short of brilliant.

Despots realize only too well that their people's economic independence and the existence of an economically self-sufficient middle class can have disastrous consequences for them. For it is this which allows a people to move from apathy to action, from a resigned acceptance of whatever the ruler decides at his absolute discretion to active participation in political life. To be answerable to his subjects is the last thing an absolute ruler wants, knowing that his grip on power cannot survive open questions on the source of his legitimacy or on the legitimacy of the privileges he and his cronies enjoy.

Apathy, education and teamwork:

Modern educational systems in advanced societies are not based on traditional teaching methods in which the teacher is relegated to the role of a transmitter, so to speak, and the student to that of a receiver. They are based, rather, on a feedback process involving student participation, dialogue and exchanges of view. One of the main features of this process is the division of classes into groups which are required to seek for themselves answers to given questions by accessing available literature on the subject, whether in libraries or on the Internet, comparing notes, consulting together and finally presenting the conclusions reached in the light of their research. This sort of group endeavour promotes a team spirit among its members, develops a sense of participation and the conviction that every individual is entitled to seek the truth for himself and to express the truth as he sees it openly and fearlessly. It also promotes tolerance and a respect for the right of any member of a group to differ from the majority opinion without this necessarily rupturing the overall cohesion of the group. At the same time, it develops the critical faculties of the students and ensures that they will not elevate anyone to the status of all-knowing oracle, neither teachers, authors nor, by extension, political leaderships.

Students raised under this system, which recognizes and consecrates the value of teamwork, grow into citizens equipped to participate effectively in the life of their community. By the same token, students raised under the system of learning by rote, where the relationship between student and teacher is a one-way street, never develop a team spirit and are content to remain passive recipients of information that will never be translated into active participation in public life. Nor is the material they are spoon-fed by their teachers processed by the students, who merely learn it off by heart and reproduce it word for word in their exam papers.

An educational system which is based on the quantity of material that can be stuffed into young minds rather than on the quality of the values that should go into their formation; which consecrates the cult of personality and fosters blind obedience to diktats from above rather than the spirit of pluralism that is the driving force of progress and civilization, and which does not teach students how to accept criticism and engage in self-criticism can only produce a breed of passive citizens incapable of rising up to the challenges life will throw at them, let alone of participating in the political life of their community. Not only is the inflexibility of the system by which they were governed throughout their formative years capable of killing any initiative, but the fact that it denied them the right to choose, which is the essence of political participation, instills in them a spirit of apathy and a sense that any attempt to change the status quo is an exercise in futility.

Apathy and the rule of law:

Most political systems in the Third World claim to uphold the rule of law, but this is usually an empty boast rather than an accurate reflection of reality. The majority of these systems operate according to the absolute will of an absolute ruler who is answerable to no one for the decisions he makes. More often than not, these decisions serve to encourage the spread of corruption and protect the vested interests of the ruling establishment, in the total absence of either democracy or the rule of law to which these political systems pay continuous lip service. It is not surprising that in such a climate apathy should spread. People are only motivated to participate in public life when it is governed by the rule of law. Conversely, when the decision-making process is clearly designed to serve the interests of a select few at the expense of society as a whole, people will retreat into their shells and resign themselves to accepting what they cannot change. There is thus a direct relationship between the absence of the rule of law and the apathy of the citizen.

Apathy of citizens in an autocracy:

The discourse of most undemocratic systems of government is rife with reverential references to 'the People'. Following a time-honoured tradition which began with Hitler and Mussolini, they glorify the people as an abstract concept but do not display anywhere near as much respect and concern for its constituent elements, viz, the individual citizens. There is a glaring discrepancy between the glorification of the entity known as 'the people' in the official discourse of the state and the abasement of the citizen on a daily basis at the hands of the system, whether in government offices, police stations or hospitals, where no attempt is made to translate the dignity accorded to the people collectively into common courtesy for the individual citizen. In short, undemocratic systems of government pay lip service to an abstract non-existent entity known as 'the people' while treating citizens much as the Mamelukes treated their Egyptian subjects in one of the darkest chapters of our history. The tyranny and oppression to which the Egyptians were subjected by a caste of slaves they themselves had bought and to whom they then inexplicably handed the reins of power have left traces in our general cultural climate. The best description of the long shadow cast by nearly three centuries of Mameluke rule on our present reality can be found in a book entitled 'The Legacy of Slaves' by an eminent Egyptian author.

Apathy and the herd mentality:

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that undemocratic systems of government engender a cultural climate which can only be described as a 'herd culture'. Under these systems, the government treats people like cattle with the result that citizens gradually come to display many of the characteristics of a herd mentality, including a retreat of individualism which, along with democracy, is one of the greatest achievements of human civilization and a prerequisite for the consecration of human rights 'in the real sense of the term, not in the sense it is bandied about by some of the most despotic systems of government today. Once a herd mentality takes hold in any society, the members of that society will develop a passive attitude incommensurate with the requirements of good citizenship. A positive attitude that leads citizens to involve themselves in the workings of their society requires a perception of self as an individual human being, not as an anonymous member of an abstract and dehumanized group known as 'the people'. A useful device for despots, the term 'the people', which is not necessarily the same thing as 'the citizens', allows them to benefit from the apathy and indifference of their subjects. This indifference, one of the main symptoms of a herd culture, is most graphically illustrated in the low turnout at the polls by educated voters who simply could not be bothered to participate in the electoral process.

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