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Bushman: The psychology of apathy

Published December 1, 2012 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Well … that was a short honeymoon. After a few weeks of largely meaningless rhetoric about the importance of unity, Republicans and Democrats seem, once again, to be hunkering down for another round of beltway chicken.

You know what I'm talking about. It's the let's-see-who-blinks-first game played in Washington, D.C. However, there is a real cost to this game. I'm not just talking about the fact that, yet again, nothing gets done. What I am talking about is the effect of such political posturing on everyone else, which is crushing, oppressive apathy.

As a clinical psychologist, I believe that most of us are, in a sense, traumatized. We are so sick of the game, we "tune out" as a way to cope. The result is something a democracy should fear the most: an apathetic, "who-cares" voting public. The talking heads and sound bites common to cable news breed mindless frenzy and then exhausted apathy. For the mess of pottage that is our pride, we sell our birthrights, which include real solutions and genuine compromises.

I used to believe that politicians didn't know the effect they were having on the rest of us. I have begun, however, to suspect the opposite. Politicians may know exactly what they are doing. It seems they want us either completely indoctrinated or completely battle-weary. If they can't have our unthinking allegiance, they will have us disconnected.

As a registered independent, I wonder where all the moderates have gone. Why is C for compromise a scarlet letter? It is clear both political parties are going to have to sacrifice some of their sacred cows — for Republicans, more taxes for the rich; for Democrats, fewer entitlements.

But the strength we need from our leaders is not more rhetoric regarding "principles" or "convictions." A new strength is required, the strength to stand up to those who really pull the strings. For instance, how many politicians are willing to push back on a well-funded lobby? There have been a few positive examples — Sen. Lindsey Graham and others rejecting the mindless Norquist pledge not to raise taxes, for example — but we need more leaders willing to be "tarred and feathered" by their own constituents.

I don't pretend to know all the reasons why it has gotten this bad, but let me suggest just one: We may be confusing policy with principles. It is possible to have principles while being flexible about how such principles are made policy. In contrast, current thinking suggests that if someone disagrees with my policy or law, then they must be attacking my principles.

What nonsense! I am not so wise in my own conceit that I actually believe that the way I form policy is the one-and-only way I can honor my principles. Confusing policy with principle leads to inflexible, black-and-white thinking, and inflexible thinking generally produces self-defeating outcomes — political gridlock, fiscal "cliffs," bankrupt Social Security accounts.

Confusing principle and policy is, at best, the way of ongoing gridlock, and, at worst, represents the thinking of a radical jihadist. Is this an overly dramatic example? Perhaps. But it is only a matter of degree.

We should not, as FDR warned, fear fear itself. We should fear the opposite: stagnation and apathy, until we have no other choice but to act. And then act we will, not out of a healthy fear. Not in an attempt to bring about pragmatic solutions. We will act out of a knee-jerk, inflexible desperation that will produce only more of the same.

Bryan Bushman is a licensed psychologist in Ogden.






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