Making Changes
Transforming Apathy And Denial

Lanie Melamed

Assisting others to face militarism and ecocatastrophe and become motivated and capable of working to reverse these threats is a substantial challenge for educators in all setting. Lanie Melamed shares these thoughts from her workshop at last year's Canadian Association of Adult Education Conference People, Power and Participation in Vancouver.

Understanding Apathy and Denial

How does one move people beyond apathy and denial? This is the $64 question for many peacemakers and social change workers. How do we get people who are not concerned about the fate of the earth (as we define it) to become aware, educated, and activated? At a recent workshop, adult educators came together to talk about how to transform apathy and denial into action, both in our work and in our social lives. To begin, we attempted to unravel the words themselves.

The word apathy had many interpretations. One is the inability to find connections with things (issues or people) outside ourselves. It is not necessarily “no feelings” but rather a sense of, “I can't do anything about it.” The flip side is that apathy can be a survival skill for those who are powerless and disenfranchised. Frequently, it is a finely honed tactic.

When we define somebody as “apathetic” we may also be indicating a power differential. Those with power over others are likely to name the problem or define the plan or agenda. When other people or groups don't see things in the same way or adopt that agenda, they are frequently labelled “apathetic.” In effect, the so-called apathy of the subordinate group can be studied act of resistance.

Denial can be the result of a value conflict, deliberate or unconscious, malevolent, or a stage of growth. Often it is the creation of an empty space a place or time in which to think something through. There is both personal and institutional denial. It became clear during the discussion that the two terms often overlap and are difficult to tease apart.

Telling Our Own Apathy Stories

To set the stage for talking about apathy as it appears in our own personal/work lives I shared some of my reasons for being interested in this subject. Briefly, I am a dedicated peacemaker and teacher, one who wants to change the world from a dominator society to one in which people share or live/work in partnership and in peace. Last year Ralph Nader re-stimulated my thinking about techniques for moving “Que sera, sera” people (“What will be, will be”). As well, the subject matter raised turmoil and resistance from adult education students in a graduate course I taught last year entitled “Education for Social Change.” These reactions seemed to stem from an avoidance or unwillingness to view the world, and education in particular, in political terms. Previous to this I had an opportunity to interview activist women in four Latin American countries and in Canada. Attitudes toward political action and political thinking were quite discrepant. In countries which had lived through revolutionary change, politics was a way of life, with emphasis on citizen involvement in community action. In western-style countries, there was disease with the word “politics” and a denial of their grass-roots as “political.”

Two quotes, taken from the Concordia University (Montreal) student newspaper, further describe common manifestations of apathy. The Roving Reporter question was, “What riding are you in for the federal election, and who are the candidates?” Student A responded “I haven't a clue. I don't keep in touch with anything that doesn't have a direct physical relationship with my life. I'm so busy with school and work, I hardly ever watch the news. I never listen to the radio, and all I read in the newspaper is Bloom County” Student B answered: I have no idea what riding I'm in and I don't give a shit who the candidates are.”

After reflecting on these examples one participant said she'd be happy if her students said things like that. “At least they're in turmoil and that's a hopeful sign.” Some of us were not convinced.

There is a danger, one educator said, in thinking that we need more information. Or, that higher class or more educated people are less “apathetic.” We don't need better arguments or more information. What we need to do is take a hard look at education and what it prepares students for.

One man described a white community in the midwest which sought co-operation from a local native group. The whites accused the native community of being apathetic when they refused to rally to the reformer's list of “community problems.” Education was not the solution. What was needed was the chance for people to come together to talk about their mutual agenda.

Transforming apathy depends primarily on developing relationships. In some ways it can be described as an spiritual encounter rather than finding new strategies and methods for education.

Strategies for Transformation

It was evident as individual stories were being told that a number of successful strategies were being recounted. One situation occurred in Nova Scotia which needed a hospice for AIDS patients. Nobody was interested. What do we do? A participant in the group suggested that the AIDS issue be hooked to another health issue, a strategy which worked successfully in his community.

We have to listen a lot before people will begin to take “action”, and then it may not be the action we had in mind. People need to discover their own roots. As the adult education adage suggests, “We have to start where people are.” Above all, it is the personal relationship which is crucial. Most of the time we have to start with the particular and passionate questions people bring.

One woman mentioned the value of clothing radical ideas in an “acceptable” and conservative exterior. She makes her unpopular “political” points by staying calm, not losing her temper, nor by attacking the other person. More frequently than not, she is heard, and the door is opened to further discussion.

A gift subscription to an alternative newspaper made the difference for one woman's son. “If you wait long enough, your kids may change.” Another retorted, “But do we have time? A major tension arises for many of us when we understand that people must set their own agendas, yet personally feel the urgency involved in becoming active. Do we really have enough time to take our time?

Parenting can also be a politicizing act. Many women have become active in the peace movement because they feared for their children's future. These women tend to be respectable and healthy looking. They present a role model which can be used to offset the negative images which the media creates of “peaceniks.” Attraction can be a powerful strategy.

We need to demystify the idea that there are “experts” out there who know more than the rest of us. The experts also “mess up.” Nor do we have to have all the answers. It's O.K. not to be fully informed and to say “I don't know, or that I haven't thought that piece through.” What is important is that we care and that we're committed to learning more.

Health is a strong selling point for becoming involved in local or global issues. It starts with our own health and expands to the health of the planet. A reminder was made, however, that it's important to avoid scare tactics or gory scenarios when we talk to people. Scaring them off and making them feel guilty will not win friends in the long run.

Sometimes it takes the threat of losing freedom to mobilize people. An immigrant from Pakistan shared her feelings about the complacency of Canadians. People in Canada, she felt, take their rights for granted. Those who have their freedoms cherish these privileges and often fell an obligation to preserve them. The right to be left alone seems to be a basic Canadian “right.”

One person can make an enormous difference in a small town said one Nova Scotian. “It helps, though, to have a supportive and accepting environment.”

One way to get people's attention about issues is to assume a controversial stance. We can choose to become risk-takers and introduce unpopular issues into social conversations. This can also be done in tandem with other persons. One person can choose to take a radical position while the other play the “soft” guy. The “centre” of an argument can frequently be shifted in this way.

Because of the ability of the media to create issues or make them invisible, and to make or break people and movements, more attention needs to be paid to their power. Media literacy should become a priority as well as social action at many levels. Not to be overlooked are the arts, music, drama, dance, story telling etc. as a means of reaching people with our concerns.

At the University of British Columbia a “change the world” group was formed among students. They meet once a week and have become an important support group.

Participants at the workshop clearly demonstrated that we all have the ability to assist others to overcome their apathy and denial regarding global threats, and become active in changing the world.

The CAAE Peace Education Task Group

Information on the organization and the work of the Peace Task group of the CAAE is available through Briskai Lund, Centre for Continuing Education, University of Victoria. Box 1700, Victoria BC V8W 2Y2.

This article originally appeared in Peace Education News Number 10 (Winter 1989-90). Peace Education News is published 4 times; subscriptions are $18/year from Peace Education News, c/o The Pembina Institute, P.O. Box 7558, Drayton Valley, Alberta T0E 0M0. Lanie Melamed teaches at Concordia University in Montreal and is co-ordinator of the Peace Education Network Quebec.



Subject Headings

Activism/Radicalism  Peace  Peace Education  Social Change
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