The Ethical Bystander

On Apathy


Activism on rise as people confront a world at war with itself

Ruth Ostrow
The Australian May 15, 2017


Apathy is a strange word, meaning without pathos or sympathy. It literally is a lack of emotion, interest and concern about the world and anything or anyone in it; and little passion or engagement towards matters spiritual, philosophical or social. To have apathy is to be indifferent to the plight of others and to lack a fundamental sense of purpose. As the narcissism of the electronic age has taken hold, it’s increasingly becoming the scourge of Western society.

Apathy is also known as the “bystander” effect. Many of us sit by and watch as atrocities happen to those around us: pedophilia, terrorism, torture, domestic violence, cruelty to animals. Bystander apathy occurs when, during a terrible event like a murder in the street, those standing by do nothing to help. According to an academic report, often bystanders will act in the same way as other bystanders, thinking someone else will do the dirty work. Or there are those like me who do care deeply but whose activism is confined to a keyboard and screen — armchair activists.

But with everything going on in the world, there is a looming end to this behaviour. Women are marching and mobilising; environmentalists and scientists are becoming more vocal than ever before about policies and climate change; and other groups too are physically protesting, or having volatile public conversations.

Into the limelight in the US is the National Lawyers Guild, which describes itself as “a non-profit federation of lawyers, legal workers and law students” that uses the law to advance social justice and support progressive social movements. The Defend Science movement recently held rallies around the world in reaction to climate change denial and other Trump policies; women left out of US healthcare talks are again on the march for control over their bodies and those of other women; indigenous groups and minorities in Europe are rising against growing hate crimes.

Meanwhile, I’m getting together a group of people to help launch a not-for-profit organisation that I won’t discuss until it’s off the ground. But it takes a lot to get me away from the comfort of “behind the screen” to take a much more hands-on stand against injustice. Cruelty is hard to stomach but I feel it’s time that I digested it.

It’s the beginning of a groundswell of resistance. As one friend said: “It’s almost good that things are so bad now because it’s forcing the change we’ve needed. The planet is dying, human rights are disintegrating. We are rising up, particularly younger generations. We have finally had enough.”

What will your response be?

You have the power to decide how you will respond. It’s not about being a hero – it’s about doing something small to help prevent possible harm to someone else.