Apathy is not the Problem

“Apathy is a sort of living oblivion” – Horace Greeley

Everybody is apathetic about something, but nobody is apathetic about everything.

My mother has no interest in computers, I mean none! But she loves, and lives for her family, friends and community.

Everybody cares about something enough to take action on it. The trick is to discover what that something is, and then to connect those motivations to the shared motivations of others. When we focus exclusively on what people don’t care about, we risk obscuring from sight, the things they do.

One of my favourite questions is, ‘what would you love to do if three or four of your neighbours were willing to help you with it?’

It’s an open question in search of a genuine answer from the person at the receiving end. The answer sought is not predefined.

Here’s the rub, so often when we ask people to get involved in community life, we do not start with ‘what do you care about enough to take action with others?’. Rather, we ask our neighbours to support us in what we care about, and have already taken action on.

It’s kind of funny to watch what – so often – happens next. Most people do not say ‘no, I’m not going to help you, go away’, straight up, instead they say ‘sure, I’ll help if and where I can’, and then don’t show. Of course when they don’t show, those doing all the hard work say, ‘see I told you, nobody cares, apathy that’s the problem with people these days, apathy!’.

But there is no such thing as total apathy, and believing there is, is to miss a golden opportunity to look reflectively at our own community building practices and try a different approach. It’s not that people don’t care in general, but that they care in very particular ways, dynamic ways that change, and ebb and flow over time. They may not be particularly into what we’d like them to be into, but that’s not the same as being apathetic in general.

Imagine being on the dating scene and interpreting every rejection as apathy, ‘it’s not that they weren’t all that into me, oh no! This person is just not all that into humanity!’ Sorry pal, harsh as it sounds, actually the truth is ‘they are just not all that into you’, and that’s ok, because they’re plenty more fish in the sea.’

And, while we stay very far away from dating advice on this blog, to stretch the analogy a little further, there’s a strong likelihood that future dates will go a lot better if you spend less time trying to get the person across the table to like you, and instead you spend more time discovering what they like. This is not the same as thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking about yourself less, and the other person more. It’s exactly the same when trying to building civic engagement. Our approach needs to be one of contribution not consumption. How can we be a conduit to the person or groups we want to engage with, so they can do what they feel passionate about?

But it isn’t just about helping people identify what their civic motivations are. Sometimes we need a little something to animate us, like a well timed question from someone we trust.

I’m sure, like me you can think of at least five things that you care about, but that you currently are not acting on. Things that essentially you are procrastinating about, I know I can. Now imagine someone you really respect listening to you, as you tell them about those things, and as you share each one, imagine them asking ‘so what are you going to do about that?’

I bet that at least two of the five things on the list will come into focus and you’ll get closer to taking action. If that person can connect you with others who can help and remind you of your capacities the likelihood that action will follow, increases.

Classic models of engagement that operate to the principle of ‘advertise it and they will come and the ones who don’t are just apathetic’, misses an essential point, a point that a duck hunter knows only too well:

If you blow the wrong whistle, don’t grumble when no ducks show. Indeed just like species of ducks there are many types of people, and so we need many different ‘duck calls’. Some folks enjoy meetings, more again enjoy festive occasions with fun and food, yet others enjoy the space to dip in and out of activities.

Hence two great civic calls are:

  1. ‘You have a gift, you sing like a Lark, and oh boy does our choir need your gift, where have you been all our lives; come join us!’ (Humour helps here, otherwise you’ll sound like a stalker)
  2. ‘What do you care about enough to act on, and how can we support you? If we know of others who share your passion would you be interested in us connecting you up?


I have found that those two calls resonate in very personal, yet civic ways for people. They attract a different set of folk to those who tend to respond well to the ‘come join our committee call’, or ‘please come volunteer your time’. In truth when it comes to building diverse, inclusive communities we need a wide array of ‘calls’, that reflect the interests, passions and concerns of every member of the community.

In the final analysis there is no such thing as an apathetic neighbour, only an inflexible community building effort, in need of a few more whistles, and a willingness to practice the art of hosting where people are encouraged to respond to whichever call they are into.

Cormac Russell

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  • V thought-provoking blog Cormac. It immediately brought to mind the Debenham Project in Suffolk, where a community decided to take the care of those with dementia into their own hands with tremendous results. http://pippakelly.co.uk/2017/06/the-debenham-project/

    October 13, 2017 at 11:15 am
  • It seems to us from the Solva Care experience that if the ideas and needs are identified by the community then engagement and success is likely to follow. An additional key factor is that we built on our strong community spirit and a history of battling to sustain our community . You always need one or two local people to act as catalysts ? Not sure if grassroots action can successfully be stimulated by others and be sustainable ? We are always being asked about replicability- hence this reflection !

    October 15, 2017 at 12:04 pm

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