In July 2016, controversial radio host and columnist, John Gormley wrote a piece for the Star Phoenix about his ennui with activism. After referencing protests around Indigenous sovereignty and Black Lives Matter, he wrote the following: “Yawn. It’s just another day in the eternal competition of whose well-publicized hurt feelings, grievances and complaints should become your problem” (par. 3). Disparaging activists as “grievance collectors” (par. 5) and narcissists, he went on to bemoan the ways the world has changed. He ended by stating that he and others like him go about their lives “in a public silence and indifference that is often confused with tolerance” (par. 20).
This column prompted vociferous debate. Many noted Gormley’s privileged position. “Being white, educated and a celebrity you can afford to yawn at civil and human rights causes. I wonder if you would be writing the same article if you were born on a reserve or in the ghetto?” wrote on-line commenter, Sheldon Mojelski (2016, July 8). Another wrote: “This is a beautiful example of white privilege and being blind to how your privilege has landed you in radio and newspaper” (Jennifer Lee, 2016, July 8).
A year later, in July 2017, well-known Saulteaux elder, Kamao Cappo was assaulted at a Canadian Tire store in Regina after being accused of shoplifting. The Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Bobby Cameron called this a case of racial profiling (Canadian Tire employee who kicked out and accused indigenous man of stealing no longer with company, 2017). “If a white person walked in there attempting to buy a chainsaw, I don’t think they’d have the same problems” said Cappo (Cowan, 2017). Many of the online comments about the story, however, were largely indifferent to the issue.
“I think you guys make a mountain out of every molehill” (Doreen Kearns, July 29, 10:30am).
“I have no idea what went on but I see the race card used for everything these days” (Cindy Bernard Higdon, July 28, 8:58pm).
“Don’t worry I am white and get the same treatment when I go to stores cause I look a certain way..bir [sic] I don’t let it affect me cause I know i am ok” (Jack Hodder, July 29, 12:34pm).
Even with video evidence of an assault in a store, many comments can be summed up by a yawn and a shrug. Whatever.
A few years ago, before posting a rainbow (Gay pride) flag in my grade 3 classroom, I had nightmares about parents dragging me down to the principal’s office. I feared that many parents would hastily try to switch their children into other classes. But all this internal drama over a flag feels silly now.
Like absolutely nothing.
I spoke to one of my university professors about how I had anticipated so much resistance and instead there had been no reaction. She was not surprised.
Apathy is a form of resistance, she told me.
Seltzer (2016) has defined apathy as a feeling of “not feeling” (par. 1, emphasis in original). It is an attitude of indifference, unconcern, unresponsiveness, detachment and dispassion. People with an attitude of apathy don’t care, and “frankly they don’t care that they don’t care” (par. 3). Whereas experiencing feelings about something is generally a prerequisite for meaningful action, those who are apathetic, feel nothing and are therefore not sufficiently stimulated to do “much of anything” (par. 2).
In the case of the flag, it is possible that parents actively support their children learning in an environment that makes space for sexual and gender diversity. However, it is also possible that the silence on this matter is more due to indifference than to tolerance. It’s hard to tell.
In the case of Kamao Cappo, apathy towards the violence he faced supports the status quo. It allows us to avoid doing anything about it. In both cases, apathy is a form of resistance that prevents us from having important conversations.
Thinking back, there have been many times when I have done something provocative, hoping to begin a conversation and instead been met with silence. When I pushed the issue, when I forced a conversation, I often got a pat response, citing progress as a guise for apathy.
There is this cloud of empty optimism that floats around many of these conversations; I am told that things are so much better than they used to be. “We never used to even talk about this in school, like we’re doing now.” “Well, the residential schools are closed now.” “Things aren’t perfect, but they could be a lot worse.” All of these responses lack an understanding of how much more work there is to be done and show little empathy for those who continue to face discrimination.
This empty optimism is a convenient conversation ender.
In 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World a dystopian novel about a future in which a rigid and hierarchical class system is brought about through psychological manipulation, reproductive control and the constant consumption of a soothing drug called soma. In 1949, George Orwell published his own dystopian novel called Nineteen Eighty-Four about a superstate that used constant government surveillance and public manipulation to maintain a perpetual state of war. Now, decades later, parts of each dystopia have come true, although perhaps more Huxley than Orwell. Neil Postman compared the two:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance” (Postman, as cited in Postman, 2017).
In the steady, constant barrage of information that is our 24-hour news cycle, has truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance? Has information overload reduced us to passivity and apathy?
In her 2008 track “Master Teacher” Erykah Badu chants the refrain “I stay woke”. The song was about not being “placated, not being anesthetized” (Stovall as cited in Hess, 2016), and about shepherding in a new era of political consciousness. In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, the phrase “stay woke” became a popular hashtag alongside #BlackLivesMatter. To #StayWoke was a rallying call for people to remain vigilant and alert, but also for Black people in particular to keep safe (Binyam, 2016).
Our society is increasingly becoming divided along these lines: between being asleep and being awake, between apathy and awareness, between silence and hope. Responding to Gormley’s column in 2016, commenter Alex Williams wrote: “At the core of activism, Mr. Gormley, is hope. Hope that we can improve things. Hope that our children will live in a more respectful and enlightened society” (July 8, 2016).
As I come to the end of my alphabet, after thinking about colonialism in the classroom from A to Z, what strikes me is this choice we have. When presented with evidence that we live in a world that we don’t want, we can choose to yawn and change the channel or we can choose to be awake to the struggles around us.
In the past week, besides Kamao Cappo’s assault, there has been an official apology by the Saskatoon Health Region for the coerced sterilizations of Indigenous women. In the United States, President Trump has banned transgender people from serving in the military. He has also tacitly endorsed police brutality. The vicious beating with a pole of 19 year-old Dafonte Miller, a Toronto Black man, by an off-duty police officer also continues to make headlines. This is not the world I want for myself, my students or my own children. At the risk of sounding like one of Gormley’s “attention-seeking grievance collectors” (par. 5), there is too much yet to be done to remain silent.
Stifle a yawn if you must, but stay awake with me.
Binyam, M. (2016, April 5). Watching the Woke Olympics. The Awl. Retrieved from: https://theawl.com/watching-the-woke-olympics-f41809d86955
Canadian Tire employee who kicked out and accused indigenous man of stealing no longer with company (2017, July 30), Toronto Sun. Retrieved from: http://www.torontosun.com/2017/07/30/employee-who-pushed-and-ejected-man-from-canadian-tire-no-longer-with-company
Cowan, P. (2017, July 27). Man claims he was accused of stealing because his is Indigenous; police investigating altercation at Canadian Tire. Regina Leader-Post. Retrieved from: http://leaderpost.com/news/local-news/man-claims-he-was-accused-of-stealing-because-he-is-indigenous-police-investigating-altercation-at-canadian-tire
Gormley, J. (2016, July 8). Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism
Hess, A. (2016, April 19). Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/magazine/earning-the-woke-badge.html
Higdon, Cindy Bernard. (2017, July 28, 8:58pm) Re: In Pictures: Protest at Canadian Tire over livestreamed confrontation. CTV Regina News [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ctvregina/posts/1666134180104766?comment_id=1666736410044543
Hodder, Jack. (2017, July 29, 12:34pm) Re: In Pictures: Protest at Canadian Tire over livestreamed confrontation. CTV Regina News [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ctvregina/posts/1666134180104766?comment_id=1666736410044543
Kearns, Doreen. (July 29, 10:30am). Re: In Pictures: Protest at Canadian Tire over livestreamed confrontation. CTV Regina News [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ctvregina/posts/1666134180104766?comment_id=1666736410044543
Lee, Jennifer. (2016, July 8, 12:10pm). Re: Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix. [Online Comment]. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism
Mojelski, Sheldon. (2016, July 8, 10:52am). Re: Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix. [Online Comment]. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism
Postman, A. (2017, February 2). My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley
Seltzer, L. F. (2016, April 27). The Curse of Apathy: Sources and Solutions. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201604/the-curse-apathy-sources-and-solutions
Williams, Alex. (2016, July 8, 2:01pm). Re: Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix [Online Comment]. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism