As long as I’ve been at Yale, professors, guests and students have taken turns railing against apathy on campus. Yalies, we are told, care too little about the outside world, and prefer to live lives of complacent indifference surrounded by their course books.
Such exhortations to care, to make our voices heard, will no doubt intensify over the next few weeks as strikes locally and war globally grow ever closer. Now more than ever, we will no doubt be told, Yale students must emerge from their apathetic cocoons and join the struggles of the day.
But after four years of poring over editorial pages, perusing innumerable posters and passing God knows how many protests of one kind or another, I can only conclude that Yale students have gotten a bad rap, or at least have been misdiagnosed. If frequency and vehemence of expression constitute caring, Yale students are anything but apathetic.
And if the columns on this page and the signs in our streets are any indicator, a little more apathy might be in order. The problem, it seems to me, is not that Yalies lack passion but that they have too much passion that is not subject to any form of intellectual rigor.
Case in point: At the civil disobedience last fall, I heard one of the students who was distributing leaflets on behalf of the marchers misidentify the numbers of Yale’s unions. I do not begrudge him his ignorance as much as the fact that he had nonetheless assumed the role of educator to others. If you can’t be bothered to know the name of the institution you represent, please don’t pontificate on its behalf.
On the other side of the labor debate, we have those whose passion to weigh in with an opinion yields columns in which the unions are deemed unworthy of support because they want money and “material possessions do not bring happiness.”
People ought to earn the right to express their opinions. I would not advocate censorship, but I do advocate self-censorship. Too few ask themselves whether they are sufficiently informed on a given topic to have an opinion worth offering.
I would not have you think that I advocate a policy in which debates are the exclusive property of a few designated experts. Rather, given the variety of information available to us as students, it is so easy to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of crucial issues that those who fail to do so are all the more worthy of contempt.
The issue of the unions is complex and riddled with disinformation by both sides. Accordingly, I suggest the following rule of thumb: if you haven’t spent the time trying to burrow through the Yale Daily News’ painfully copious coverage of the subject, don’t carry a sign, don’t wear a sticker.
I have just sketched the case for why an informed opinion is better than an uniformed opinion, with the expectation that few will take issue with such a claim. I’ll go further, however, and argue that apathy is preferable to an uninformed opinion, that it is better not to care than to care in ignorance.
For starters, in nearly all issues, be it labor disputes or the decision to go to war, your opinion matters only indirectly. That is to say, your opinion has impact only insofar as it convinces those with actual power to make a given decision. Such officials change their minds either because they see merit in your argument, or because they sense that you are sufficiently committed to that argument to make a difference to their political or institutional future.
Simplistic slogans in the absence of facts or the presence of erroneous information make your opinion seem less credible and your fervor seem less deep. Faced with calls to support the nonexistent Local 33 or to stop U.S. genocide in Iraq, presidents Levin and Bush have little reason to heed the opinions of the adherents of those causes.
Thus, ignorant vehemence will likely have the same effect as apathetic silence. I contend, however, that such unsubstantiated zeal can be not only ineffective but pernicious.
When we examine the facts of any complex issue, we come to recognize that the issue affects real people with competing interests, and that taking either side requires a willingness to sacrifice the welfare of those on the other. Even if we conclude that there are reasons for making such a choice, we ought not to forget the costs of any such decision.
Whether you support GESO or the administration, Iraq hawks or peace activists, you must recognize that adopting any such position will cause someone to pay the price.
Advocacy without factual backing thus contributes to a passion devoid of compassion. When we ignore the costs of our choices we are in fact being apathetic without recognizing it. Such thoughtless caring rarely makes us kinder.
Consider also that our opinions, more often than not, are shaped by the opinions of the people around us and the force with which those opinions are expressed. The more you speak in ignorance, the more likely you are to inspire similar opinionated ignorance in others. Intellectually indefensible enthusiasm is contagious in a way that apathy is not.
To the exhortations to care, let me then add one of my own: read up or shut up. It is time for Yalies to put less effort into making themselves heard and more effort into making themselves worth hearing.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.