Apathy #2

Does sitting on your hands mean that you should resist complaining? A friend claims that complaining is a natural part of human conversational fabric, whether or not one intends to try and resolve the issues that are being complained about. My argument was typically principled but highly impractical (as they often are), in that I was making the claim that unless you are prepared to try and effect change, you really don’t have the right to complain.

Something we didn’t think of during the conversation was that perhaps complaint can itself be characterised as a course of action, albeit on the very thin end of the wedge. If you complain loudly and for long enough, perhaps someone with more energy will take some action. Or perhaps that’s one way in which we justify never doing anything ourselves, in that there’s always some hypothetical other who will take on the battle for us.

The same argument used against those who say “my vote can’t make a difference” can be re-deployed here – and we can perhaps say that the avoidance of action in terms of remedying the things that piss us off will invariably result in nothing changing, or in things changing at a far slower pace than they otherwise could. Unfortunately, the voting argument is quite possibly a bad one, as pointed out by Levitt and Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics. Perhaps it’s simply true that the vast majority of us can’t make a difference, and resignation – whether Stoic or not – is the only rational option.

I’ve been telling myself for years now that despite all evidence to the contrary, my activity in the classroom does help in effecting change. But thinking about last night’s conversation, I realise that regardless of this belief’s truth or falsity, there is a potentially deeper problem – one involving logical consistency, a principle I espouse at every opportunity. The problem relates to one basic lesson I teach my students: that unless there is evidence for a belief, that belief should usually be discarded. And I frequently fail to see students take the full significance of the material I introduce them to to heart – they typically pay attention for just long enough to pass their exams, and when I meet them a year or two later, nothing seems to have had a lasting impression.

Of course there are exceptions, and every teacher will tell you of the small proportion of good students who allegedly make it all worthwhile. But if the proportion is small, perhaps it’s the case that my intervention made no difference, and that these students would always have come around to “my” way of thinking in any case – making the lasting and major effect of my teaching the hordes of disgruntled students, resentful at having been forced to sit through these abstract lessons while they could have been learning how to make money faster.

So I don’t know. I’ll probably keep on trying for a good while still, but that’s perhaps more due to my own apathy in being reluctant to shake life up by engaging with alternate careers. And then, it’s quite possible that the same frustrations will recur in any alternate career in any case. The simplest solution may well be for me to learn to simply complain, whether or not I intend to perform any actions. But part of me – the most convincing part – says that doing so will mean capitulation to the ignorance of the day. Capitulating may make me a more popular teacher (or person), but if I were to do so, I could no longer imagine having myself as a friend…

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.