Monday, June 13, 2011


Apathy is defined as "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern." I worry a lot about apathy toward, or superficial interest in, world affairs. Lots of people drive a Prius, dutifully donate the occasional hundred dollars to various respectable charities, and bring cans of food to their school's food drive. Maybe they buy organic food or pay an extra couple dollars for something that says "Sustainably Harvested." This is all great.

But aside from maybe buying "green" things, how many of these people actively advocate for issues? Turn on the TV not just to watch the Heat vs. the Mavericks, but to stay informed about the goings-on in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan (really any other part of the world besides the US)? A lot of companies are capitalizing on the "coolness" factor of doing good--Starbucks is trying to get its coffee sustainable, Target is donating 5% of profits to schools, etc.--but I think something that few people have addressed is the extent of the level we care about world affairs.

Just think what typically comes up in conversation. "How was your trip?" "We should totally go shopping!" "I bet you're disappointed by the hockey loss..." When was the last time you had a conversation about child marriages in Yemen or the need for jail reform in the US? Really, when was the last time you thought of those issues? I know you must be imagining me as a strict, frowning person. I'm not trying to say that you should be puritanically informing your friends about all the problems in the world at your next party. That would be a pretty hilarious image. But when do we talk about the issues that impact people other than ourselves?

Maybe the reason politicians haven't brought up homelessness and jail reform--two very important issues--is because the homeless and convict communities don't exactly provide a lot of votes. Rich CEOs who can pay for campaign funding, on the other hand, do. This is why I have trouble with the idea that we should only concern ourselves with the things that affect us. Yet it's an idea which seems to have percolated through media and society. Why else do you think we mainly cover US news? It's news about ourselves. And ABC News has a "Made in America" series where they try to get people to mostly buy products made in the US.

That's all very well, but ABC overlooked the fact that when products are manufactured in other nations, they may help to raise that nation's standard of living. When the standard of living rises in other nations, they often buy our products--things like iPads and other technologies. We live in a globally interconnected society; the time for protectionism is past. We can't afford to think only of ourselves. Why not instead stand up to practices such as child labor, unhealthy work conditions, and low product quality by only giving manufacturing contracts to those factories that meet ethical standards, rather than making blanket statements about the ethics of goods produced in a certain nation?

This only-caring-about-things-that-affect-me attitude does not stop at manufacturing/economics. Reading the Facebook news feed (which yes, I know, is not an accurate reflection of humanity), there are generally a few people who post news articles/calls to action regarding a humanitarian or charitable topic; most of it is "so-and-so is in a relationship with so-and-so," pictures of random things, "I hate the -expletive- -insert academic subject here- homework!" etc. Sure, I post pictures of myself and random things, and I'm not going to say you're a bad person because you do too; but I just wish that people wouldn't exclusively talk about what happened at school or what they're having for dinner.

On Facebook, I see that a lot of very smart people, in gifted programs and Honors classes, whose parents are software engineers and doctors and various other high-profile professions, are posting only about self-related things. An apathy toward world affairs is not an epidemic of one class or one age or one country. It can be found, on different levels, in many different people--whether it's calling a book about women's rights in developing nations boring and deciding to read the Gossip Girl series instead, or never discussing ethical issues though you may be perfectly aware of them, or knowing every detail of a dictatorial regime because you have to make a documentary about it for class, but not discussing it in any way when it doesn't pertain to your grade.

A lot of people criticized my article on the prom tradition as being too intolerant of having a good time "once in a while." The problem is that we try to have fun all the time; we seem to naturally shy away from the unpleasant things in the world and avoid talking about problems (something I see a lot in school, as peer pressure can make it "uncool" or "weird" to discuss current events in conversation). We try to live in a bubble of Priuses and occasional donations, shopping trips to buy sustainably made forty-dollar shorts with our friends, conversations about school events and neighborhood redecorations.

We have to change our concept of "doing good" as the erratic donation or petition signature, to an awareness of global issues, willingness to take action and raise awareness among our friends, advocating for lesser-known, not necessarily "cool" issues, and overall, a deeper empathy for all our fellow humans (and animals too)--not just those in our home, school, city, state, or nation. It starts at home and at school, but by emphasizing it through society, I hope we can all realize that shifting "other people's problems" onto other people's shoulders doesn't work so well as when we all pull together.


Note: I'm by no means the only person who cares about global issues. :) There is a huge community of like-minded youth and adults who are doing amazing things for the world. The TED Conference is a great example of this ( I organized a TEDx event, or independently organized TED conference, last year, called TEDxRedmond. This year we're at it again!

The organizing committee behind this year's TEDxRedmond ( and our speakers for last year and this year show what a large number of youth want to have a voice and a platform to spread messages about important global issues. Please help support TEDxRedmond 2011 through sponsorship, participation, or by spreading the word. Hopefully this can be a first step in getting more people involved in making change. Thanks! 


  1. rocobley1:56 AM

    The reason was this apathy is a very simple one - a feeling of powerlessness. Incidentally it's not restricted to global affairs, and it's not an attitude that occurs only with Americans. I am an activist in London, England, and the basic counter-argument to why people should get involved is "There's no point. There's nothing you can do about it". And if that is the view you take, turning on the news to watch stories of war and suffering, whether in your country or elsewhere, becomes an exercise in depressing yourself. It's only through seeing activism scoring successes that this view begins to change.

  2. I agree with Rocobley. I wonder if a campaign to redirect American news to more global affairs and ultimately to a tone which encourages people to make a difference would help.

    Also, with activism... where do you start? I've just never come across an organization before reading your post which could show me where I'd best be able to help. I donate now and then, but if I were to become an activist, it would look like sign-waving or selling all my junk and becoming a missionary. But I'm a computer engineer. What can I do?

    ...Oh and I have a question for you that I hope you won't take offense to, because I only just discovered your existence. Excuse my ignorance for asking: Do you ever catch people brushing off your good ideas by calling them "cute" and then ignoring them?

  3. Great post....we as americans are caught up in our own lives to think about those who are less fortunate...keep blazing trails...people will follow!

  4. rocobley3:22 AM

    "...Oh and I have a question for you that I hope you won't take offense to, because I only just discovered your existence. Excuse my ignorance for asking: Do you ever catch people brushing off your good ideas by calling them "cute" and then ignoring them?"

    No I tend to get denounced as a dangerous extremist. But then I am one ;-)

  5. Regarding your comment about self-absorbed Facebook users...I think that self-absorption is acceptable on Facebook. After all, the purpose of the site IS to connect with friends and share your photos and thoughts, and because people don't generally think about those less fortunate than themselves, those types of things won't appear on a Facebook wall. It almost seems too idealistic to expect people to post about things like that on Facebook but I understand where you're coming from. I simply think it's a bit too much to ask since Facebook itself is a very superficial and self-centered medium.

    As per the news, a lot of the pressing issues in the world aren't being addressed because it's so much easier just to forget about them. People would much rather think about something less important but more "fun," like a sports match, over child labor or wars. However, I do agree with you - the Heat vs. Mavericks game is much less significant.

    That being said, I find myself turned off by some of the self-absorption American media tends to have, but (playing devil's advocate here) I think that in a way it might be understandable. Humans are by nature selfish, so we're obviously trying to better our society and raise our own economy and make sure all of our people are safe before we care about others. It's a self centered way of life but that's sort of our nature. For example, if you had a choice between helping out a family member or helping out a stranger in another country, you would help out your family member first. It's a similar ideology.