The Power of Just Not Giving a Damn

I think we under estimate the communicative and reconciliatory value of just “not giving a damn about some things.” There was a story in the paper last week about a 26-year-old boy, Ethan Saylor, with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caretaker. When the movie ended his caretaker asked him to wait while she went to get the car. The boy walked back into the theater and sat down when the theater personnel came in and told him to leave. The theater manager called mall security who forcibly removed the boy from the theater while he was crying and calling for his mother. Somehow, while restraining the boy and wrestling him out of the theater he went into distress and died. The theater manager and the mall security agent were more intent on upholding rules and “doing their job” then they were concerned for the safety of Mr. Saylor. Who cares if this young boy was in the theater without a ticket? It was not something worth “giving a damn about.”

Along a similar vein, I was listening to Charlie Rose interview the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Khazaee. At the end of the interview Rose asked the ambassador if he had seen the movie Argo about the escape of some Westerners from Iran during the revolution. Khazaee said that he had seen the movie and there were numerous mistakes such as Iranian linguistic conventions for “hello” and “goodbye.” He then went on to demand the movie producers (that would be George Clooney) apologize to the Iranian people for this great insult. Such heated and indignant insults simply demand retribution! Again, I thought about how these demands for an apology were more damaging than anything else and tensions would diminish if people just “didn’t give a damn.”

Muslims regularly report that they feel humiliated by the West, which most Westerners do not understand, and some genuine political events notwithstanding, there seems to be little reason to feel such humiliation. Let’s take a closer look at the value of not giving a damn, or the philosophy of apathy.

I’m not suggesting that we should not care about some things just that too many people care about too many things. One of the tricks of maturity for both an individual and an ethnopolitical group is to develop a sufficiently strong self-esteem that you find little interest in caring about greed, status, self-righteousness, and minor slights. Of course, care about community, the environment, and fairness but always maintain enough empathy and knowledge of the other side to temper your own feelings and recognize even minor legitimacies of the other side. Moreover, we value passion and engagement but it is not worth being passionate and engaged in something you have little control over and can even do without. It is possible to care too much and hence hurt others with words and deeds.

Again, I’m not diminishing the intensity and difficulties of ethnopolitical conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I understand enough about human psychology to understand the accumulation of anger and distorted messages that result from generations of conflict. But containing and framing that anger is equally as important. Just as every child who matures into adulthood should understand the mistakes his or her parents made, it’s equally as important for personal development and maturation to “get over those mistakes.” The same is true for conflict groups, there are certain slights and humiliations that must recede into the background. Here are a few additional suggestions: 1. Most other groups – most, not all – don’t care about you. If you do not bother them they will not bother you. 2. You do not have to be friends with everyone; you do not have to like everyone in the same way. 3. A certain amount of obscurity is desirable. There’s a pleasure in fading into the background and not being noticed. The people engulfed in the passions of political conflict could use a few more experiences where they shrug their shoulders and sound like teenagers. They should say things every once in a while like “whatever.”

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 1, 2013, in Political Conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hate to go all ‘critical’ on you, but what about power difference? It’s easy for the dominant group to brush things off & label the weaker ‘oversensitive.’

  2. Well, I understand and agree. But it’s a matter of what’s worth giving a damn about and what’s not worth giving a damn about. Even a weaker group has to “get over it.” Muslims regularly report feeling humiliated by the West. When you push them to articulate why it usually has to do with small insults and perceived injustices. The US doesn’t fully understand this because it’s not their intention (most of the time) and the other party is focusing on minor slights that were not designed for insult. Even the weaker party has to contextualize these insults and not allow them to further inflame the relationship.

  3. Maybe it’s especially important for dominant groups to ‘give a damn’ about showing respect.

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