Indifference in an age of connection

by Susan Rose Francois

NCR Contributor

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We live in an information age where many of us are constantly plugged in. Technology that fits in my pocket can instantly connect me to loved ones or strangers. My smartphone alerts me to child abductions in my local area, while events thousands of miles away, such as hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and mass migration, unfold before my eyes almost in real time. What does it do to the human psyche and the spirit, I wonder, to regularly witness images of suffering, death and destruction from within our safe and comfortable homes, and then go about our daily lives?

In this time of hyper connection, there is a real danger of disconnection. It is almost as if it is too much to hold, all this suffering. Even the most well-intended among us risks becoming indifferent to the experiences of neighbors far and near. We may become so dialed in that we paradoxically become tuned out — tuned out to the very griefs, anxieties, joys, and hopes that cry out for a compassionate response and work for systemic change in light of the Gospel.

Pope Francis names such indifference as a major obstacle to peace. In his message for the 2016 World Day of Peace on January 1, he observes that even people who consider themselves well-informed can be indifferent to their neighbors. "They are vaguely aware of the tragedies afflicting humanity, but they have no sense of involvement or compassion. . . . Sadly, it must be said that today's information explosion does not itself lead to an increased concern for other people’s problems, which demands openness and a sense of solidarity." (3)

It is certainly important to be well-informed about injustice, violence, and oppression, not to mention the real life human suffering that stems from these insidious roots.  However, we must also allow the information we take in to transform us, touch our hearts, and lead us to action.

This week, I spent some time reading the letter Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote while sitting in his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, 53 years ago. He certainly knew about transformation, action, and connection. "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

As I re-read King's letter, I could not help but let  the fact that he addressed his words to a group of white clergymen who were critical of his campaign of nonviolent direct action in response to racial injustice wash over me as I read them from my own standpoint as a 21st-century, white Catholic sister. "First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate . . . who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action' . . . ."

Facing an overwhelming sea of social injustice, I am coming to realize that my privilege moderates which realities I choose to see and which I take to heart. My privilege distances me from the experiences of people living in poverty or those who daily struggle against racialized structures of injustice which limit access to education, housing, and employment. My privilege obscures my own complicity and connection to the root causes. My privilege makes indifference and disconnection possible.

King’s words challenge me to take seriously the Assembly Resolution that was passed by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious at our meeting last August, in which we women religious leaders committed to "examine the root causes of injustice and our own complicity as congregations, and to work to effect systemic change as we struggle to establish economic justice, abolish modern-day slavery, ensure immigrant rights, promote nonviolence, and protect Earth and its biosphere." If we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, each of these threads is key. Ignoring one risks unravelling the whole. It is important not only to take concrete steps to address these issues, but also to face our own complicity in the networks and structures of social sin that deny our God-given mutuality and breed such injustice.

Privilege may make indifference possible, but indifference itself can also be viewed as a choice. We can choose to be indifferent to the reality of social sin, or in the words of Pope Francis we can respond by engaging in "positive initiatives which testify to the compassion, mercy and solidarity of which we are capable." (7)

In her book, Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice (Princeton University Press, 2011), political psychologist Kristen Renwick Monroe examined the responses of ordinary people to an extreme example of social sin — the Nazi holocaust. Her analysis of extensive interviews with rescuers, bystanders, and Nazi supporters led her to conclude that "identity constrains choice" across all three groups. In other words, how those living in Nazi Germany saw themselves in relationship to self, others, and the world radically influenced their response and actions.

Those who supported the Nazis saw themselves as victims and in danger. They chose to strike out against target groups out of their perceived need for self-preservation. Bystanders saw themselves as weak with little control over the situation. They chose indifference. A common response was, "But what could I do? I was one person alone against the Nazis."

What the rescuer group shared in common was not necessarily heroism or altruism but identity. Those who chose large or small actions of resistance or support for targeted groups saw themselves as connected with everyone and able to effect change.

Most people, please God, are not likely to face the dramatic life and death choices that were almost an everyday occurrence under the Nazi regime. Yet, we are nonetheless connected to the network of injustice that impacts neighbors near and far.

In this age of connection, how we see ourselves in relationship to self, others, and the world is key. Do we see ourselves as weak, disconnected, or victims? Or do we choose to see ourselves as connected and able to make a difference? Pope Francis encourages us to do the latter: "I would ask everyone to take stock of this reality, in order to overcome indifference and to win peace." (2)

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]