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The age of apathy

Connor Roth | Friday, April 26, 2013

Our generation has grown up with dramatic change – the world has revolutionized through this “information age” in which we live and cultures have changed significantly too. We grew up around technology and witnessed the beauty and horror that can occur in the hands of mankind: the wonder of the Internet has awed us as we access books, journals and encyclopedias in just a few clicks of a mouse, the horror has occurred most prominently in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two hundred years ago, traveling by flight was unthinkable, just as telecommunication via interconnected networks was something of fantasy. In comparing modern society with the past, we’ve made great strides, but it feels as if something is still holding us back. Something about human nature is preventing our culture from attaining what some may call “enlightenment,” which indubitably will have different meanings to different people, but we can use one interpretation for the sake of the question that will follow in the next paragraph. Some would argue the initiation of force/violence in any scenario is a moral wrong and thus all human interactions should be voluntary and non-coercive – but we obviously do not have this truly free society, so what’s holding us back?
In considering the previous question, we should examine two dystopian novels many people debate on which is the truly accurate social commentary: George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Neil Postman famously distinguished the two books in a foreword to a novel of his own, writing, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in ‘Brave New World Revisited,’ the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions. In ‘1984,’ Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In ‘Brave New World,’ they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”
It’s obvious Postman believes both “Brave New World” and “1984” are two books that illustrate completely separate viewpoints on human nature and what may be holding mankind back. Postman argues there is a difference between fear of “Big Brother” and a fear of indifference (or rather, preoccupation). My question to the readers is – a question I’d also like to contemplate further – are these two stories so different? Are they as inseparable as Postman makes them out to be? In 1991, a Times-Mirror poll showed high school students at that time knew less, voted less, cared less and were less aware of current events than any other generation prior to that time. Since then, pundits have describing the past 20-30 years as the “Age of Indifference” or the “Age of Apathy,” which definitely makes Huxley’s argument all the more relevant. We can see all around us how so many are encompassed by Angry Birds, what’s trending on Twitter, and other things some may consider “unimportant.” For those who have seen the movie “Supersize Me,” should we be surprised by the scene in which the young children recognized Ronald McDonald better than George Washington or Jesus Christ?  
As far as Orwell goes, I think it’s hard to argue against many of his points too. Throughout our lifetime, the United States government has engaged in many practices that worry all of those concerned about civil liberties, regardless of party lines. The Patriot Act, undeclared wars, the War on Drugs, TSA, excessive public surveillance, Guantanamo Bay, indefinite military detentions of U.S. citizens and drone strikes all come to mind – and that’s no shortlist either. One only has to look to other countries like Turkey and China, who have censored the Internet and other forms of speech, engaging in a metaphorical “book burning,” as Orwell would say; we can look to Egypt and Iran, who engage in a war on women. Although some would argue against his defense, we see what penalties whistleblowers like Bradley Manning face from our justice system. But, the point is that it is an undeniable fact there is some censorship in our country (obviously much more abroad) and there are things certain people out there don’t want you to know.
In concluding this article, I’d again like to ask my readers: What is holding us back from making our society more free? Was Huxley right – do people just not care about these issues anymore? Is it rational that we know more about Notre Dame football than about American history, geography or political discourse? On the other hand, is it just human nature to try to gain power and political influence, and then engage in censorship and surveillance to uphold that position as Orwell describes? Unlike Postman, I believe the ideas held by these two authors can possibly walk hand-in-hand – I’m not sure one is “right” and the other is “wrong” or that they are rivaled concepts defining mankind. But then again, maybe neither author correctly predicted where society is going – perhaps we are on a different path that is more “enlightened” than people give credit for. So, where are we going as a species? What do we have to look forward to in the future and how can we get there while upholding the personal freedoms that have made this country so great? I guess I’ll just form my own opinion on Huxley and Orwell based on whether or not people put down their iPhones to read this – assuming “Big Brother” doesn’t censor the article first.

Connor Roth is a sophomore Economics major and Constitutional Studies minor and can be contacted at croth1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.