The Antidote to Indifference is Difference

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel died during the fourth of July holiday weekend. Wiesel was a witness to some of history's greatest atrocities, and he channeled the clarity and ugliness of that vision into fiction, nonfiction, and oratory. In one of his most dramatic speeches, called "The Perils of Indifference," Wiesel addressed the United States Congress in 1999:

What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means "no difference." A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals? Of course, indifference can be tempting -- more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.

Wiesel's reflection on the internal contradictions of "indifference" are striking; for Wiesel, the natural conclusion of indifference is the reduction of an entire class of people to the "Other," making suffering and oppression possible. That Wiesel's death coincides with the celebration of Independence Day suggests a juxtaposition between Wiesel's "The Perils of Indifference" and Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (NB: See the embedded video for James Earl Jones's dramatic rendering of the speech.) Douglass wrestles with similar themes as he implores a Christian audience to reflect on a contradiction inherent in their own indifference to slavery:

At the very moment that [the churches and ministers of this country] are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance, and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness ... But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God ...

Douglass unmasks the lunacy of supporting liberty for some, while enslaving others, relying on that same word - "indifferent" - to describe the process through which the self-righteous justify their own hypocrisy. At the heart of both Wiesel's and Douglass's arguments is the matter of the gap between "difference" and "indifference." If difference invokes the characteristics that distinguish us from each other as humans, indifference is the ugly power that justifies ignoring the pain inflicted by those differences. Sustained indifference metastasizes, and when coupled with the power of the oppressor, becomes racism. Wiesel and Douglass had similar perspectives on the interplay between indifference and oppression:

But ... this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors.
— Douglass
Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor, never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.
— Wiesel

One side benefit of being a Jew who spends most of his time writing and thinking about racism in the United States is that I get to peek behind this country's veil of indifference through the lens of my ancestors' sensitivity. My own people's history is inextricable from the tragedy that ensues from becoming "the Other," that dangerous cocktail of power and indifference. The same cocktail exists throughout American history. In the early days of the republic, the indifference veil was woven into the economic interests of Southern planters and Northern bankers alike. Today, our school-to-prison pipeline is White America's thinly veiled racism masquerading as its own putative safety and security. The veil's opaqueness has as its accomplice the segregated schools and neighborhoods of our twenty-first century existence; it's easier to "Otherize" someone when you never have to talk to him.

The antidote to indifference, strange as it seems, is embracing and understanding difference. While Wiesel points out that the words are obvious etymological opposites, it is easy to ignore their practical interplay. If we can talk openly about the ways in which our experiences differ, we might find those unique places where our humanity and empathy intersect. If we ignore difference, we bury the most meaningful and painful parts of ourselves and our history in the pursuit of false comity. Indifference is the colorblindness that leads to the largest prison population in the world, composed disproportionately by men of color. Indifference is the myth of equal opportunity propping up a school system that fails to prepare children of color for an equitable place in society. Indifference is the exceptionalism that allows us to ignore thousands of refugees crowded on a ship, whether fleeing Europe in 1939 or Syria in 2016.

Reflecting on both Wiesel's death and Douglass's words requires a commitment to fighting indifference. We have many rhetorical, technocratic, political, and policy tools at our disposal in that pursuit. The most revolutionary act in that endeavor, however, might be the simple, yet painful, act of acknowledging and reckoning with the pain that our indifference has rent on one another, and subsequently celebrating the differences that make us human.