Culture & Society

Inoculating for Individualism

Apathy is upon us

By Lucy Dean Stockton

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Art by Emma Kathryn Regnier

The dissolution of our country is upon us, and our generation is the reason, or so goes the common discourse today. The narrative states that the gen-Xers are suffering from the proliferation of media, from a disrespect for our elders, and from going digital, thereby losing human connection. We are inheriting a world full of social injustice, political strife, global unrest, and climate change. We are forced to solve the problems, and at the same time are accused of being the problem. And we don’t even care.  But the problems of our generation are nothing new; though aided by new technology, they are the result of centuries of inoculating. Our society’s values contradict the basic premise of any society by emphasizing the individual over the group. As a result, many of us are indifferent to anything beyond our iPhone. I reason that in effect the problem is not the iPhone, but instead the intense individualism and indifference that the device allows us to exercise.

Neoliberalism is inextricably connected to “American values.” As a nation that freed itself from colonial rule, our forefathers fought and lost lives for independence, for free enterprise and property rights, for democracy and for social, political, and economic freedom. The authors of our constitution were people who had already succeeded in society, and created a country that benefitted people like themselves. They argued that anyone who worked hard enough in this country would succeed, implying focus on the individual and what they alone can do to improve their status.  The American Dream, older than neoliberalism, is about an individual (you) rather than society, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps means you are inevitably leaving someone behind or stepping on someone’s back to get there. How does this neoliberal emphasis on the individual over the group affect us as a society? We become apathetic to what is beyond our individual selves, making us blind to the problems that affect others and our sense of collective responsibility.

“The choice to ignore things that do not benefit or directly affect us is not just sad, but threatens to destroy the very foundation of society.”

This “selective apathy”—the choice to ignore things that do not benefit or directly affect us—is not just sad, but threatens to destroy the very foundation of society. Neoliberalism ignores oppressive social structures and rests on a foundation of obliviousness and ignorance, in pursuit of the “equality” afforded to us in the American Dream. However, neither this equality nor this freedom to compete exist because there are social barriers to success. This reliance on the individual, and the apathy towards actively improving the lives of fellow citizens, results in the institutional privatization of services and an increasing reliance on the market to provide for the well-being of individuals, often at the cost of social programs. It ignores the sociohistorical and political constructs that hold entire groups of people back. As this individualism saturates our worldview, we blame the individual (woman, person of color, LGBTQ) for their failure to assimilate to the “norm” and for their failure to “succeed” in our society.

The rise of neoliberal ideology in this country was swift and strong, and rather than being a new concept, it actually capitalized (ironic!) on the pre-existing framework of individualism and capitalist gain. At the turn of the 20th century, we saw a gross exploitation of U.S. citizens with the rise of factories, corporations, and cities. The union movement that was born out of resistance to companies in mining towns, in cotton mills, and in factories grew into a political movement and led to an era of more socialist policies. Socialist policies, while never fully achieved in the U.S., include things like free education, universal health care, and mandated vaccination. These policies focus on the well-being of the group over the individual, and collective social responsibility before individual achievement. From the late 1800s to the ’80s, economic and social inequality in the U.S. were on the decline as people fought for social equality and economic rights. During this time, citizens saw the danger of the free market system and its inability to provide for all people equally. However, as the economy boomed in the ’80s, we as a society redefined what was important. We voted for Reagan and other conservatives, and allowed our government to slash public services, further increasing our dependence on the market to provide equal opportunity and livelihoods for all citizens. Around the world, globalization and global markets redefined the world’s sociopolitical landscapes, transforming diplomacy from bilateral relationships to multilateral agreements and later, to market-based coordination between nations. The failure of markets was catastrophic on a global scale, particularly when the hugely detrimental Structural Adjustment Programs were devised by international governing bodies. These effectively blamed entire countries for market failure, hurting the poorest the most. As the economy boomed, sovereignty deteriorated and political participation declined in tandem.

Today, neoliberal economic policy is not the only site of apathy. Rather, we see this selective apathy everywhere. In a global framework, the developed world is ignorant, oblivious, obsessed with their own profits or selectively apathetic to the plights of developing nations. It glares out at us from the eyes of angry white males declaring affirmative action is not necessary now that we live in a “color-blind” society. It haunts the halls of shuttered public schools, closed because they were deemed failing. It rears its ugly head in the revival of some of our most dangerous diseases as parents choose to not vaccinate their children. Here, on Cornell’s campus, it is made poignantly clear in our disinterest in campus politics, in national inequality, and in our interpersonal relationships. Apathy, therefore, is a social, individual, and economic problem.

Some of these trends demonstrate individual neoliberal ideologies while others illustrate what institutional neoliberalism looks like. For example, vaccination is one of the greatest achievements in human history, improving our ability to fight disease, to improve the human condition and, in some cases, allowing society to advance. Before vaccination, and in places where vaccines are not present, disease can ravage entire populations of people, and may decimate populations. Some diseases affect certain people far more than others, and if people who are infected do not experience symptoms, they are carriers for the disease. Carriers are dangerous to society as they can unknowingly affect dozens more people, especially those who are not immune to it. Vaccines can essentially eradicate disease by immunizing both those who would be infected and would-be carriers. When people choose to forgo vaccines, they place themselves and other vulnerable people at risk.

Increasingly, parents have chosen to forgo vaccinating their children because they fear things like autism and other dangerous side effects. The result of the anti-vaccination movement that has been gaining momentum in recent years, has shown how quickly disease can spread, and how diseases that were previously eradicated in the U.S., such as polio and the measles, can come surging back. The American Pediatric Association, federal government, and American Autism Foundation have all discredited the relationship between autism and vaccines. This makes a parent’s personal choice to not vaccinate their child on the basis of questionable evidence, selfish and dangerous. The decision exemplifies extreme individualism, and suggests that we have the personal freedom to choose for ourselves at the risk of others, thereby valuing one person’s potential well-being over the lives of many others. This is not only the moral reasoning for ideologies like libertarianism, but it is also intensely individualistic and apathetic to the plight of others. When we believe that our freedom of personal choice is worth more than the lives of others, we begin to degrade the foundations of society.

“I have seen some of the most intense apathy of our generation on our own campus. This school is the site of dramatic privilege and in a place where education is here to make us question things, students are instead apathetic.”

This same individualism can be seen through market and public forces in the rise of charter schools, recognizing the intersection of the two in privatization. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate on a market-based system, rely on the idea that they will inherently be more efficient than publicly-managed schools. The reliance on the market to educate our children sends a message that we do not trust each other to enlighten and educate our youngest citizens. It says that we would rather base their achievement on test scores than their holistic growth, and ultimately that we would prefer to capitalize on the success of our children while privatizing our public services at the risk of other students’ futures. In a market system, someone has to lose. Charter schools are the epitome of educational commodification, in which schools and scores are the product and parents must compete with each other to consume the best one. Rather than looking at the most important experience, and making that holistic education available to all students, we see instead the illusion of choice as a better replacement for democracy. Schools, unlike other products, can’t just close and open at the will of the market. Opening and closing schools hurts kids, forcing them to readjust. In the case of rural schools, it may even detach them entirely from their community. We cannot blame parents for encouraging their child to go where they will have the brightest future. We must reform the system so that parents do not have to compete with one another.

I have seen some of the most intense apathy of our generation on our own campus. This school is the site of dramatic privilege and in a place where education is here to make us question things, students are instead apathetic. This is not meant to discredit the presence of mental illness, to condemn the work of student activists aggravating for a better campus by challenging the administration, or the countless Cornell citizens who actively engage in their communities. At Cornell, it seems to students that it is “cool not to care” about their communities or about attending an interesting lecture series. In my experience at Cornell, I have seen again and again that people are more concerned with getting a degree and getting to Wall Street than with bettering our society, alleviating poverty, or fighting dramatic inequality caused by the same systems in which they hope to participate. It is impossible to separate the two: the extreme wealth and privilege at one end, and the deprivation for the rest of our society on the other. Though we cannot break the connection between the two, we can ignore it. Cornell students in particular seem to care very little about our environment, our social inequalities, and what we can do to be kinder to each other.

“It glares out at us from the eyes of angry white males declaring affirmative action is not necessary now that we live in a “color-blind” society. It haunts the halls of shuttered public schools, closed because they were deemed failing.”

The general tendency in the media to look at politics through a cynical or negative light, encourages people to detach from politics. Cornell students are not particularly interested in politics beyond their internships and the courses they take, and surprisingly are not very interested in the politics of this institution. As #FightTheFee and so many other movements on campus have taught us, it’s difficult to mobilize people, even for issues that they should care about. When discussing climate change, sexual assault, and local Ithaca politics, students seem theoretically concerned, but unwilling to commit a few hours of their time to telling other people about it, to writing up Cornell legislation, or to demanding institutional change in the university. Even the very basis of our relationships and the strong tendency toward hook-up culture demonstrates the apathy of Cornellians. It can be empowering for some, but is nonetheless hugely individualistic.

While these first seem like highly disparate examples—vaccination, the news, and our very own Cornell—they are closely interrelated through a theme of apathy and carelessness. The biggest problem our generation faces is not the iPhone, but rather the way we use it to tune out the world around us. The largest threat to the cohesion of our nation is not racism, but our unwillingness to acknowledge or work to change it. The greatest danger to economic equality in our country is not capitalism, but is our anti-union sentiment and our historical narratives about individual success. Individualistic ideologies and apathy are slowly disintegrating the moral fabric of our nation and undermining the social cohesion that holds it together.  We need to reclaim public services for the public domain, and ensure that our government isn’t run by our economy. Socialist policies, like more investment in public schools, worker’s rights, and an emphasis on equitable public services, are the answer to—not the cause of—social problems. If we want any of these policies to become realities, we need to start caring. We need empathy, not apathy, and ultimately, we need action.

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