That’s who I was in the early 1960s. Like millions of others, I had internalized the popular ideas of my geographic region, which imbued me with a xenophobic and racist worldview as the one true window on reality. I was up to my neck in mainstream indifference.
It would be another decade before I embarked on the process of self-education that would enable me to begin awakening intellectually.
Mainstream indifference is a form of ignorance born of inattention and apathy. Depending solely upon appearances, it is fed by pettiness and gravitation toward whatever seems easiest. It revels in anti-aesthetics, bad faith, an absence of mindfulness, and a total lack of reflection about matters vital for making sense of the world. Not just half-hearted, these are half-headed efforts.
Devoid of compassion, mainstream indifference is a hostile, authoritative, and testosterone-laden environment where the weak are ridiculed and the poor are held in contempt, regardless of the circumstances for their plight.
This anti-intellectual mindset leads to the kind of situation where, as recently as 1998, unthinking white men can assume that it’s acceptable to drag a black man behind a pickup truck until he is dead, as happened to 49-year-old James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, or to murder a young man like Matthew Shepard in Wyoming simply because he is gay.
In effect, mainstream indifference is a selfish, cliché-ridden, and narrow-minded refuge for racists, bigots, misanthropes, and misogynists. It’s a psychological wasteland where thoughtless people are bound together by a yoke of stupidity that’s wholly accepted as plain old common sense.
Such thinking frequently betrays itself, however, as seething hatred, complete with public demonstrations of contempt for “others” when, actually, a lack of curiosity is the real culprit. The social realm where it thrives is anti-intellectual to the bone, feeding upon a disdain for eloquence in literature, the arts, and all serious endeavors that require cerebral verve.
This deeply internalized conviction is often vested in superstition, intermingled with conspiracy theory, and held so dear that it cannot be acknowledged for what it really is—a profoundly malignant strain of despair shared by a fearful populace who are unified by their own lack of awareness and bonded by a form of hatred so spurious that it feeds off itself.
I understand this level of relating because I was a frequent participant before I began my own journey of self-education. I have seen how such insensitivity infects otherwise good people who don’t set out in any way to harm others but wind up doing so because of an inherent default to the worst human instincts. Indifference lies at its core.
In 1987, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel put this mystery of human nature in crystal clear perspective. He said, “The opposite of memory is not forgetfulness. The opposite of memory is indifference. What is the opposite of art? Not ugliness. Indifference. What is the opposite of faith? Not heresy, but indifference. What is the opposite of life? Not death, but indifference to life and death.”
Indeed, history has shown that indifference is often a breeding ground for evil, allowing social relations to deteriorate to a point where facts are less important than choosing sides. In a democracy dependent on accountable citizenship, indifference is a spiritless sidestepping of responsibility and a serious impediment to achieving authenticity.
My perspective about learning and relating to others stems from the advantage of seriously pursuing education later than most, when I already had some worldly experience under my belt. Even though it’s nearly impossible to remember what it’s like not to know something after you’ve learned it, I still have a keen understanding of what it’s like to internalize a racist social outlook without the cognizance to know better.
Hatred thrives on indifference, but knowledge fosters tolerance, even a measure of tolerance for indifference. I’m quite certain that, had I not embraced self-education as a lifelong endeavor, I would have become a frustrated and anxious individual by now, very likely convinced that any reason there might be for my not achieving more in life was someone else’s fault.
Today millions of Americans have such an outlook, and what’s so disappointing is that I know how they feel. After more than three decades of voracious reading, writing, and reflecting, however, I’m convinced that curiosity can overpower indifference. I also know that reaching a level of interest about any subject powerful enough to become a self-sustaining form of motivation can be a hard thing to do. Still, I think for most people it’s not a question of having enough time but rather how they choose to spend what time they do have. Intellectual maturity is a function of deliberate learning, not of age. True adulthood is not possible without it.
Reflective maturity involves the kind of intellectual honesty that enables clear scrutiny of our hidden prejudices as well as the ability to discern patterns of self-defeating behavior. This need not be an unpleasant experience. Maturity is not the time to shrink from responsibility; it’s the time to assume it.
Later life is not a time to become set in our ways, but rather a time to figure out how and why we have “ways” at all. It’s a time for lifelong liberals to look for value in conservatism and a time for conservatives to do the reverse.
Learning in the September of one’s life is exhilarating because of the vast perspective that years of lived experience provide. Maturity achieved is an unspoken yet glaring declaration not only that one has lived, but also that one has learned from the experience.
(Adapted from The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. Republished with author’s permission)
Charles D. Hayes