Being Indifferent


Indifference: a state of unconcern, an obliviousness, a denial and a negation. The antithesis of love. [1]

In the beginning was indifference. When the first humans asked “Why am I here?” and “What is the point of it all?” Being fell silent.

When over the course of time people asked why life should be so unsparingly cruel, so unfair and so unjust, so ridden with evil, Being again fell silent.

This cosmic impertinence split humanity into two broad groupings: those who could forgive the silence and those who could not; those who would see the silence as the ultimate repudiation of faith-in-God, and those who felt no God would be worthy of the name who was so pliant to human supplication, who preferred a crude rather than a subtle and mysterious self-revealing.

That the cosmic order is as little moved or disturbed by our birth and death as it is by the coming and going of anything at all – a flea, a snowflake, a dust mite – this seems to be rather beyond dispute [2], and the source of an inexpugnable anxiety in many.

This sense of Being’s indifference was humanity’s first great psychic wound – a wound that never went away, that is perhaps reopened by every blind eye and every deaf ear that is ever turned to us.

Deep in the Well of Society

One writer speaks of indifference as “an attack,” “an invisible aggression,” “a state that kills silently,” against which there is no defense. The victim is “destabilized, reduced to nothing.” [3]

The sheer ugliness of indifference is apparent when we reflect that the finest human natures are precisely those that care, that are engaging, attuned to others, curious and compassionate – those out of whom feeling and concern pour abundantly. Noticing and being noticed is the linchpin of all human attraction, and perhaps the “without which nothing” of the world’s morality, which enjoins us to take stock of the feelings and welfare of others.

The prevalence today of expressions like “no one cares” and “couldn’t care less” suggests that indifference runs deep in the well of society.

Adorno saw it as one of the symptoms of cultural deterioration, of a civilization marred by minima moralia. He saw indifference as a strategy by which the morally and intellectually subaltern take revenge on their superiors:

Now that the world has made men speechless, not to be on speaking terms is to be in the right. The wordless need only stick immovably to their interests and their natures to get their way. It is enough that the other, vainly seeking contact, falls into a pleading or soliciting tone, for him to be at a disadvantage. [4]

A new world was forming, Adorno thought, in which many were “no longer plagued by the disquiet of consciousness,” in which opposing ideas and higher planes of thought could best be combated simply by declining to engage them. Such a world would increasingly be peopled by “blockheads,” characterized by the withdrawal of human contact, the absence of rewarding association, and a dreary, egoistic “that’s-the-way-I-am” morality.

It is not an accident that the preferred manner of cultural expression over the last thirty or more years has been ironic detachment. When irony is the default setting of relatedness, it becomes the arch-enemy not only of sincerity but of caring. What it says is that nothing is ultimately worthy of affirmation, that life is merely a performance, a gag, that “coolness” consists of never taking things seriously. Ironic expression lacks the collateral of moral conviction. In its half-smile, its wink and nod one witnesses an ontic evaporation: the instant comes and goes, “nothing more just this,” unaccompanied by any assertion of feeling or of self.

Baudrillard thought indifference had become an objective quality, no longer merely the disposition of subjects but a quality secreted by our social universe itself. It is the result of what he described as “cultural liquidation,” and it is characterized by behavior without quality, by individuals losing their differences, losing their role as responsible actors, becoming anybody rather than a somebody.

This liquidation Baudrillard referred to is the outcome of a long procession of events: the demise of the public square and fall of the public individual; the neutralizing effects of the electronic medium; the diaspora of all media content, creating an ontology of diffusion rather than one of unification; the collapsed boundary between the real and the simulacrum; and the loss of being and reality generally.

What we have seen in modern times is the imperial reign of antagonistic social processes over individual life – processes that overwhelm and obtund subjectivity, that create and sustain social inertia, that undermine an earnest discourse (through irony, parody), that redefine aptitude and intelligence (away from the imaginative, poetic, literary, and intuitive, toward quantifying, measuring, calculating), and lastly, that refashion the political (away from the “revolutionary moralizing of the 1970’s,” as Baudrillard put it, toward a protean, nihilistic pragmatism and accommodation.)

The indifference evinced by Being all along is now matched by the indifference of social processes. The individual now has nothing with which to oppose this state of affairs, and worse, may not even have any desire to do so. He is as much the carrier of this pathogen as he is the victim of it.

Indifference Towards the Indifferent

None of this is to suggest that there is not a redeeming quality to indifference. Not caring can be a defensive reaction against an over-saturated world. A reaction against a marketplace which shoves its products, its programming, its spokespeople in our face all the time. “I don’t care” may be the cry of the person under siege who wishes to opt out of it all.

When there is a campaign to huddle everybody together, to get everybody to think the same way and to do the same thing, to serve the same cause all in the name of being “dutiful, responsible,” indifference can arise suddenly and say “No”. No as in, “you’re not going to enlist me in this cause, you’re not going to get me to care.” When indifference is defiant in this way, it achieves a certain grandeur.

The best example of this is the 2016 U.S. presidential election. All along it was clear that the print and broadcast media were going to make the election a referendum on Trump’s vulgarity and invidiousness. The message was clear that, whatever one felt about Mrs. Clinton, whatever one’s political point of view, one had a duty to stop Trump. And the message was driven home day after day, month after month.

There was every reason for the media and political establishment to think that Trump would suffer a humiliating defeat. After all, there is nothing notably “political” about him: he doesn’t play nice with anyone, doesn’t wear the unctuous smile, is too gruff, too unpolished to succeed in a town noted for its lubricity and its Tartuffism.

For a large bloc of the U.S. electorate, Trump’s status not merely as “outsider” but as “other,” his abrasiveness, his wealth, his contempt for big media stars and for the media in general were (and are) deeply appealing. For this bloc, the 2016 election was indeed a referendum: a referendum on the state of politics itself, on the media and on power. A vote for Trump was seen clearly as a vote against them.

Enough voters had remembered just how indifferent the establishment had been to the average citizen over these many years. [5] They recalled that those making the laws and effecting policy do not have to listen to them. Indeed, there are no longer any consequences for ignoring constituencies, be they on the left or on the right, and losing an election often results in a huge promotion to a lobbying firm, lucrative fees on the speaking circuit, book deals and other inducements.

In short, power over these many years has grown insufferably arrogant. And the major press and broadcast media have, too. It is they who had grown a little too accustomed to deciding for the nation who is and is not a viable political candidate, what is and is not a respectable political platform, what is and is not serious and respectable punditry. Gatekeeping is bad enough, but the smugness that attends to it leaves people dreaming of the media’s downfall.

What better way to respond to the hubris and haughty indifference of the system than to make its titular head Donald Trump? What better time to rebuff the establishment than during the hour of its direst need?

It was the system that had profaned the culture back in the 1980’s and 1990’s by making men like Trump prominent figures in the first place. Now it is the electorate profaning that very system, electing to high office a man who embarrasses his own patrician class, who presents to the world the least flattering image of the nation’s rulers, and who embodies not a few of their most repulsive traits.

“We’re voting with our middle finger,” said a South Carolina Trump supporter on the eve of the election, lending color to the truism that those who wield the sword of indifference can in turn be lacerated by it. [6] That those whose existence has been blotted out can take their revenge at the worst possible moment, and in the most ruthlessly imaginative of ways.


1. Hatred still clings to the other; feeling has yet to leave its system. With hatred there is the possibility, however remote, of reconciliation. Indifference, on the other hand, “kills” the person by refusing to acknowledge her existence, to accord her any ontological status at all.

2. A more interesting if less plausible view was put forth by Marilynne Robinson some years ago. She said that no place is ever the same once we’ve taken leave of it. The spirit of a small park, say, is changed forever by our entering it, surveying it, exiting it, and never returning. Perhaps it sees us, feels us, is intrigued by us and experiences absence, even forlornness, when we walk away. This is panpsychism, the view that everything in the universe possesses mind or a degree of consciousness. So the grass, the trees, even the air circulating throughout the park “knows” when we’ve arrived, can sense our level of engagement, and may even develop a memory of us as well.

3. These thoughts were expressed by Nicole Czechowski in an interview with Jean Baudrillard in Le Pardon (Editions Autrement) in 1991.

4. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: Verso, 1974), pp. 183-184.

5. On a number of issues, from the passage of trade treaties like NAFTA in 1993 to the absence of a public option in the Affordable Care Act in 2010 to the continuation of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the executive and legislative branches have been at odds with the American people. The antagonism is reflected in polling data on the public’s opinion of Congress and in the overwhelmingly negative response over the years to the question, “Is the country on the right track?”

In an influential study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (2014), political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that “in the United States, the majority does not rule – at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

6. For a sympathetic view of this defiant attitude, and of the working-class perspective in general, see Michael K. Smith, “Class Dismissed: Identity Politics Without The Identity,” Counterpunch (December 5, 2017).