There May Be a Method to the Madness of Apathy and Ignorance

Note: This post suffers from a case of style drift. That is, it’s only tangentially related to foreign policy.

At AlterNet, Chris Hedges recently made a strong case for individuals taking responsibility for how their actions (or lack thereof) affect society at large.

The greatest crimes of human history are made possible by the most colorless human beings. They are the careerists. The bureaucrats. The cynics. They do the little chores that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death a reality. … Good. Evil. These words do not mean anything to them. They are beyond morality. They are there to make corporate systems function. If insurance companies abandon tens of millions of sick to suffer and die, so be it. If banks and sheriff departments toss families out of their homes, so be it.

I used to characterize apathy and lack of conscience as the enduring enigma of the American public. In fact, though, as I wrote in a post titled for Scholars & Rogues in 2010, apathy may be socially redeeming.

Apathy, of course, aids and abets corrupt leaders. But it wasn’t until the publication of a book in 1996 that I realized apathy might be socially redeeming. Titled Who Are You, Really? (Carroll & Graf), it was written by Gary Null, the noted (and controversial) nutritionist who is also that rarity in this day and age — a Renaissance man.

You may have heard of a personality assessment questionnaire used by prospective employers, among others, called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If it was an acknowledged product of Carl Jung’s book Personality Types, Myers-Briggs, in turn, seems to have been the inspiration for the categories into which Null divides us humans. You can find the heading under which most of us fall in his chapter “Most of the People You’ll Ever Meet: Adaptive Supportive.”

What, you ask, is an Adaptive Supportive? Null explains:

Adaptive Supportives generally do functional work. They may be clerical-level employees or blue-collar workers in government agencies or factories. They may work at the checkout counters in retail establishments or at construction sites. … sticking with a job year after year sometimes constitute an unrecognized act of heroism on the part of members of this group.

In fact. . .

Adaptive Supportives play an absolutely essential role in our culture, as in any. Without them, the inner workings of society would simply cease to function. … Because there are so many of them, their values and way of life pervade our culture.

Summing up. . .

Adaptive Supportives are the followers in life — the vast majority of the people who adapt their lives to prevailing belief systems. … Their whole lifestyle is supportive of the status quo and they thrive on the sense of belonging that comes from “fitting in.”

In other words, it’s time to stop libeling them as apathetic. It’s just how they’re wired: Their passivity is in the service of fulfilling their role as the bedrock of society. But, as with all personality types, you take the good with the bad. Of course, the liberal left is more familiar with how harmful they can be to society, as well as themselves. Gary Null again:

The real danger with Adaptive Supportives is that they will cling to faulty belief systems. They have a strong sense of trust in one authority, and they feel vulnerable and threatened if an idea or person challenges that authority. … They relinquish control over their own lives, giving more power to authority figures than they do themselves. That gives them a myopic view of life and closes off many avenues of growth and transformation.

Can They Transcend Their Limitations?

Here’s Null’s answer:

When Adaptive Supportives do change, it’s usually because an authority figure has given them “permission” to do so. When the authority in their lives changes, they’ll shift course and go along with whatever the leader expects of them. If the pope were to allow women to become priests, the masses would adapt to the change and support it. … The irony is that Adaptive Supportives could be a tremendous force in society, simply by virtue of their numbers.

Resolving to act against injustice tends to result from personal growth, about which Null writes:

. . . Adaptive Supportives must recognize that there is nothing intrinsic about them that prevents personal growth. … But they have to take charge of their own development. They can’t wait for some big boss figure to give them permission to change, to say it’s okay. The few Adaptive Supportives who do break through the “big-boss barrier” become very excited about their own untapped potential. … The catch is that they may need someone to work with them — generally a more dynamic personality — to keep them motivated and to supply structure and direction.

Just because Adaptive Supportives embody the turning-ship cliché doesn’t mean we should be discouraged. In fact, Null’s analysis should encourage us to cease lecturing them and throwing up our hands in exasperation. Instead, engaging them individually, we can draw out their needs and fears, and address them without the harshness — toward themselves as well as others — to which Adaptive Supportives are accustomed.

Still, it can’t be denied that engaging them on subjects such as politics, culture, and the future of the planet can be a thankless task. The most hidebound are best left to stew in their own juices. But, in the long run, most Adaptive Supportives would probably be glad to be weaned off those who prey upon their insecurities.