Against Apathy

How to fight the temptation of not caring about social issues

Earlier today, I read this article about how TikTok gathers a ton of data on its users. That wouldn’t be anything new — Facebook and Google do that all the time — but the article was scary enough that I deleted my account and uninstalled the app from my phone. It seems that TikTok isn’t just harvesting data like the other tech companies and it represents a difference in kind, not degree. You can read the article and decide for yourself whether you think the concerns are overblown, but for what it’s worth, I think you should uninstall the app. If you live in India, you won’t have a choice, since TikTok will be removed from the app stores soon.

I sent the article to my 11 year old twin siblings, telling them that their thoughtful and considerate older brother deleted the app, and that he suggested they follow suit.

Of course, they didn’t care at all.

They’re 11. They want silly dance videos and lip-sync challenges, and they don’t really care very much about data privacy and things like that. Frankly, I can’t really blame them. Data privacy is a groan of a problem, and we shouldn’t be surprised that a pair of 11 year olds expressed confusion when their older brother tried to scare them out of using their favorite app. Lord knows, if I were as bored as they are during this quarantine, I’d want any scrap of entertainment I could find, dubious privacy violations be damned.

But this points us to a much broader issue.

What do we do when people don’t care about the things they should care about?

It’s one thing if my siblings shrug off data privacy concerns, but should they be just as comfortable shrugging off climate change? How about gender inequality, or racism?

If enough people don’t make a fuss about an issue, nothing changes, so there’s a moral responsibility we all share to raise our voices and make a fuss about the injustices we see in this world.

But now you may be thinking “Uggh… Data privacy? Do I have to?”

And this lies at the root of the problem. We have a limited amount of time and attention to give. We can’t protest all the time, we can’t donate to every fundraiser, and we can’t call every representative. Ultimately, we have to pick our battles, and given everything else that’s going on, you may well be tempted to say that data privacy simply isn’t your cross to bear.

Quote from Hank Green in “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”

Personally, I think that’s calling it quits too soon. Don’t put down that cross just yet.

It may not be a pleasant issue to deal with, but if we agree that tech companies shouldn’t pervert our right to privacy, then we shouldn’t cave even when they dangle a juicy social media app in front of us. We have to stand strong in our beliefs, and we need to fight for what’s right, even if it feels like we’re already extending ourselves to our limits.

The thing is, you only have a reasonable excuse to not care about an issue if you’re already frying bigger fish. If you were so beleaguered by the strain of climate activism, anti-racism advocacy, and gender emancipation, then you may get a pass. But if you’re just chillin’ and could totally take on data privacy as a cause area (it’s sometimes as easy as deleting a few apps and calling your rep whenever there’s an important bill being debated), then your excuse isn’t fairing too well. You can donate to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, and you can encourage your friends to use Duck Duck Go on Firefox.

My point here isn’t about data privacy specifically. I’m just using that as a stand in for the many, many issues out there that need more voices and supporters rallying for change.

If we’re being realistic, most of us — myself included — are doing far less than we’re capable of. (Seriously people, please vote and protest and donate!) I agree that we have to establish priorities, but if we deprioritize certain things out of sheer laziness, then we may only realize that they’ve gotten out of hand after it’s too late (see: climate change).

The hard and painful truth is that we simply have to build up our political stamina and curb our apathy wherever we feel it bubbling up. The good news is that we’re all a lot more capable than we give ourselves credit for, and the feeling of civic engagement and activism is actually extremely rewarding (albeit very frustrating at times, too). This goes for TikTok, but it also goes for things like eating less meat, donating more money to life-saving charities, and doing all the other things that you know you should do but don’t because they’re not always enjoyable.

Now, dear and noble reader, I’m sure you are a paragon of virtue and you spurn single-use plastics and you compost and you protest all day erryday, but what should you do about your friends who don’t?

Unfortunately, since change won’t happen if we don’t achieve a critical mass of supporters, it’s not enough to just do your part. That means you have to be an evangelist and try to convince others.

Do it gently and reasonably, please, but just do it. You’ll double your impact if you can convince even one more person to donate to a fundraiser, or show up to a protest, or write to their representatives.

Lastly, I think it’s alright to nag people just a little bit. Don’t be afraid to be labeled as that nuisance on social media who won’t shut up about politics or climate change or data privacy or what have you.

You’re allowed to be annoying if you’re right.

We know that nagging and other forms of social ostracizing are effective tools in bringing about social change. In our hunter gatherer days, people who violated social norms got shunned (or worse, an arrow in their backs), so exerting social pressure is one of our oldest tools to make sure everyone plays by the rules.

So that’s my advice. When people don’t care about the things they should be caring about, double check that you’re doing all you can do, and push yourself if you aren’t giving it your all. It may be a heavy cross to bear, but you gotta do it. Then, go out and convince your friends and family to join the crusade.

I swear the cross will get lighter if we all lend a hand.

I’m approachable!