One of my favorite speeches to teach is Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference.” This speech was given on April 12, 1999 in Washington, D.C. Elie Wiesel is the author of the book entitled Night. He is a Holocaust survivor, political activist, and Nobel prize winner.
The message of his speech is that indifference is the greatest evil, even more than direct hatred. That may sound confusing, but let me explain by pulling together quotes from his speech…
He starts off by remembering the day he was rescued, the day when the American soldiers entered his prison camp. He “remembers their rage at what they saw” and he describes how he continues to feel grateful for that rage.
If the soldiers seemed unfazed upon entering the prison, that would show a lack of compassion. That is the exact problem with many people today: their indifference.
I can tell people all about stories from my mission trips and although they are interested in the stories, they just don’t care enough to donate money, volunteer, or get involved in any other way. They believe that the people who are dying in other countries aren’t their problem. They are indifferent. Rather than feeling hatred at Joseph Kony or other genocidaires, they just ignore the problem and act like it doesn’t matter, or they say something about Africans being savages who cannot be saved. This indifference is dangerous.
I think it is safe to assume that the majority of people on this globe suffer from indifference. They are too concerned about the problems that only affect themselves and their inner circle of friends and family. Anything outside of that circle simply isn’t their concern.
But that is exactly what allows evil to run rampant: a large group of people who don’t care enough to do anything about these evils.
Wiesel continues his speech by emphasizing the gratitude he feels toward America for finally stepping in during the Holocaust. He then defines indifference as, etymologically, “no difference,” proceeding to ask a few rhetorical questions about it. Is it a virtue? “Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?”
But then he quickly provides a clear response: no. It is not a virtue. He admits that it can be “tempting” and “seductive,” but to the person who is the victim of such indifference, it can mean life or death. While the indifferent person enjoys his glass of wine, the people who are victims of mindless atrocities are losing their lives.
Now, I think that at times, some indifference may be necessary so as to not be constantly feeling depressed about the state of the world, or feeling that there is no hope. I don’t think it is wrong for me to go out to dinner, go on a vacation, or enjoy my own life. However, this is only true if I also do my part in tackling such indifference. If I always ignore the problems of the world, as many people do, then I have a serious problem.
I travel on mission trips to try to improve the lives of those I serve, at least in small ways. I make donations toward organizations that are out working in the trenches to improve our world. I teach my students to be ethical, responsible citizens. I’m not a perfect person, as I know that my acts of service are not able to entirely change the world. But there are many American adults who never give a penny to charity, who have never volunteered (or stopped after they didn’t need it anymore for college applications). It is these people who shouldn’t have the pleasure of enjoying that glass of wine with dinner, forgetting about the children who are being raped and maimed at the hand of sadistic leaders who continue to get away with murder (literally) because nobody has stopped them.
“To be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman.”
Sometimes, I feel completely overwhelmed by the problems of the world. There are so many horrible problems that I wish I could solve. Poverty. Hunger. Malnutrition. Lack of access to clean water. Sex trafficking. Slavery. Addiction. Abortion. Euthanasia. A disregard for the sanctity of life at all stages. Pornography. Global warming. The extinction of animal species. Healthcare. Racism. The justice system. The war on drugs. Homelessness. And on and on and on.
I cannot fathom how so many people live their lives without ever consider the people who suffer on a daily basis. I probably donate more money and volunteer more hours than many Americans, but I still sometimes feel guilty when too much time has passed since I felt I made a significant contribution toward the betterment of society. I just don’t understand how people can spend five hours each night watching Netflix and never feel ashamed by their wasted time. It can make them almost inhuman because of their complete disregard for humanity.
Wiesel says that indifference “is more dangerous than anger and hatred.” That may sound surprising. Isn’t it the bigot who is worse than the person who ignores the problem? Isn’t it the rapist who is more evil than the bystander?
No. Because the bystander it a good person who is allowing that rape to take place. That bystander knows that what he is witnessing is wrong, but he is too concerned about his own safety to help the victim. I’m not making excuses at all, but maybe the rapist is high on drugs and not fully aware of his actions. Maybe the rapist has a mental illness. None of that excuses the rape, but if the bystander is aware of the evil that is taking place, doesn’t he have an obligation to help? If he knows it is wrong and does nothing, then he might as well be an accomplice. Society can agree that the rapist is evil. The bystander, however, has now also become evil if he does nothing.
Take this 2010 story from The New York Post as an example. A homeless man in Queens saved a woman from a man who was attacking her with a knife, only to be attacked himself. Surveillance footage shows him lying in a pool of blood while 25 bystanders walk by. He saved the woman and was attacked himself some time around 5:40am, only to be found by firefighters at 7:23am. Were his wounds fatal at 5:40? I don’t know, but by 7:23 he was dead.
Those bystanders should feel partially responsible for his death. They didn’t have to face any danger to save this man’s life (or at least attempt to). They could have just taken out their phone and dialed 911. Was that too much effort for them? Was it simply easier to turn their head and walk away?
This isn’t just the case in America. A Chinese girl was run over by a truck and there is video footage of witnesses doing nothing. In the very beginning of Peter Singer’s TED Talk, “The Why and How of Effective Altruism,” he shows the video. People walk right past her body and do nothing, to the point that she is run over again before a man finally helps, though it is too late. She is dead.
This is why indifference is more dangerous than hatred. That doesn’t mean that murderers and rapists are good, but they are fewer in number than those who are indifferent. The murderer is still committing an evil crime, but there are times when it has only occurred as a result of good people doing nothing. They are facilitating the murder.
“Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.” Hitler would have loved those who were indifferent. Why? Because they weren’t stopping him. No, they may not have been directly killing people, but indirectly, they were aiding the process.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from Birmingham Jail, asserts that “the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
It is easy to condemn the extremists whose horrible actions are broadcast all over the news. But they are in the minority. The majority of the world is comprised of good people who are silent. They are people who are good, but timid. People who are cowardly when it matters the most.
It is their silence that allows evil to continue. There’s a line from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar that reads “cowards die many times before their death; the valiant taste of death but once.” Every time we good people are silent when we know that we must do something, we are “dying” to ourselves. We’re too afraid to stand up for truth, for justice, for humanity.
“Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.” If I act indifferently, I don’t just ignore the child soldier; I punish him even more by allowing his captors to keep him in that position without facing resistance.
If I am indifferent, I continue buying those diamond rings, thereby allowing the blood diamond industry to continue and to make profit from me. Rather than helping those who are suffering, I am abetting the enemy.
Elie Wiesel says how the Holocaust consisted of three types of people: victims, killers, and bystanders. Which group was the worst?
Most people would quickly say it was the killers. But by sheer number, there were many more bystanders who were doing nothing. Such bystanders could have stopped the killers before the extermination of millions of Jews. But they didn’t. That is the problem of indifference.
To me, the most heartbreaking moment of Wiesel’s speech is when he says how “our only miserable consolation was that we believed that Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets. If they knew, we thought, surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction. They would have bombed the railways leading to Birkenau, just the railways, just once.”
He and his fellow prisoners believed that the world didn’t know about their plight. They thought it was a huge secret because surely, somebody would have stepped in if they had known, wouldn’t they?
But that wasn’t the case. America knew. Other nations knew. But their indifference took hold.
Wiesel brings up something that we never learn about in American history classes. He explains what happened with the St. Louis. It was a ship that was carrying almost 1,000 Jews to safety in 1939. They were going to enter Cuba and then the United States with visas that they had previously applied for. The quick version of the story is the fact that this ship was turned away. 28 passengers were allowed to disembark, but Cuba refused to allow that for the rest of the passengers. The boat was sent back to Europe. Wiesel says he doesn’t understand why Roosevelt allowed that to take place. He proceeds to ask numerous rhetorical questions:
“Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?”
“Why was there a greater effort to save SS murderers after the war than to save their victims during the war?”
“Why did some of America’s largest corporations continue to do business with Hitler’s Germany until 1942?”
It all comes down to indifference, which is still a problem today. I wrote a blog a while back entitled Hard Work and Determination Aren’t Always Enough. After posting it on Facebook, I knew that some people would disagree. But worse than those who blatantly disagree are those who are indifferent. Those who don’t care about the plight of the black race in America.
We must rally up good people who have the courage to stand up against the evils of this world. Too many people feel like they can’t really elicit major change. While that may be true at times, think of all the change that would occur if every indifferent person spent even a small amount of time fighting back. This whole world would change.
The recent abortion laws have been my most recent frustration. I believe that abortion is an evil that must be fought. There are thousands of people in the United States who agree with me. The problem is that they would rather not ruffle feathers.
They will tell me how horrible abortion is, but when I ask them to become involved in Pro-Life work, they sheepishly back away.
When I offer that they can come pray outside of the abortion clinic with me, they suddenly stop responding to my messages.
So although they call themselves “pro-life,” are they really? They may think that they are, but in reality, they’re just helping the abortionists to continue the work that they are doing.
If we want the world to change, we need armies of people standing up against the evils. We need groups of indifferent people realizing that they must end their indifference and use their courage for good.
Elie Wiesel was grateful that the soldiers who entered his prison camp showed rage. He needed to see that people had realized the evil that was taking place during the Holocaust.
Let us all give up our indifference, even if only for short periods of time. Together, we can change the world.