The Dreaded Wall of Apathy

Earlier this year I presented at a liberal college in Vermont. I faced something there more terrifying and difficult than in any other presentation. Usually people come down decidedly about the queer issues I present. They are hot or cold–hot for queer rights and the end of oppression or cold set against us. But at this school with an audience of about 350 students, I hit faced a lukewarm reaction. “Whatever. I don’t care.”

Throughout the show I felt like I was swimming in the pool of Jello. Afterwards I felt more exhausted and defeated than I have ever felt in any action or presentation I have done.

I am reminded of that as I prepare for my presentation tomorrow night among liberal Quakers here in New England. Sure there are allies gallore and folks who say they are more than willing to undo the oppressions of sexism, racism and homophobia, but very often I run into a strange phenomenon, one that I can fall into too. It is apathy dressed up in accomplishment.

Bring up a hot button issue and the most stifling form of defensiveness takes the forms of listing off all the many things the person or group has done to fix that issue. Not that these accomplishments need be minimized, but one of the problems with being progressive, ahead of the mainstream, is that we can get into the place of treading water as we wait for the mainstream to catch up.

So here is my dilemma. I will be with a group of people who for decades have been threshing (and thrashing) issues affect LGBTIQ folks. They have a good and solid history of speaking out, writing minutes, affecting change. But homophobia still exists in the Yearly Meeting and Monthly Meetings. Suicide is still the number one cause of death of LGBTIQ youth in the US, including Massachusetts where “gay marriage” has been legalized.

So when I stand on that stage after my show, taking questions and later in the week, and Friends ask me, “So what can I do?” What shall I say?

Thoughts? Insights? Suggestions?

This post has 16 Comments

  1. Joe G. on August 7, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    Try using the words “discipline”, “repentence”, “sin”, “salvation”, etc. and see what happens. {ahem}

    Or, have the Monsignor sing a song to them about his encounters with the Holy Father…that might make them squirm, too…

    Honestly, Peterson, it reminds me of the post I just wrote yesterday. Messages pointing out the intolerance of others to a liberal congregation can be very comforting for us to hear…and in the end make us feel apathetic or complacent. It’s not an easy one to necessarily “get around” unless you change up the message in a substantial way, I guess.

  2. Contemplative Activist on August 7, 2006 at 2:23 pm


    I wonder if people at the liberal college don’t think it applies to them.

    Sometimes, those of us who pride ourselves on being liberal-minded, non-discriminatory etc., are blind to the very subtle, implicit ways in which we oppress other people. Perhaps through the assumptions we make, the language that we use or the status-quo we don’t question?

    I wonder if this is at its most subtle (and therefore, most dangerous) in communities who have an anti-discriminatory ethos and therefore don’t see themselves as being involved in any kind of oppression, or indeed, see themselves as having made significant progress (which may be quite true.)

    Still, I find it hard enough to see sometimes, never mind trying to open other peoples’ eyes.


  3. grace on August 7, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Recite 1Corinthians 13, maybe? That always works for me! 😉 Good luck!


  4. Tenryu on August 7, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    It’s great to see the antithesis of apathy in your writing. I agree with Contemplative Activist- it’s easy to pay lip service to liberalism and keep it at the back of your mind, but then just kind of go through your day as always. I ran into a somewhat similar situation- as a Buddhist, it’s easy to kind of get into that mentality of “Oh, I woke up extra early so I could sit in meditation for 30 minutes and pray for compassion for all beings. What a great person I am!” but then pass up an opportunity to help someone out you meet on the street. It’s kind of like, “I already offer ideological support- what else am I supposed to do?” By way of advice, I’d say that everyone can do something- don’t just assume that there is someone (like yourself, if I may be so bold) doing great things who will pick up the slack. Everyone can do something- it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, as they say. Stop and think honestly and openly about everything, including yourself. That’s a really tall order for anyone, myself included, but I hope it does help. Be well.

  5. Tonya on August 7, 2006 at 4:53 pm

    i guess i’m finding you just have to do what you do, say what you say and leave reaction to those your facing. it’s really a control thing and i find we don’t really have any. i want to pull strings but it doesn’t work that way. you just witnessed me finding this out for myself.

    that sounds so defeated but that’s the way it is.

  6. Steve Boese on August 7, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    The gift of this venue is that you get to speak as one of the people there.

    Might this be an opportunity to be transparent about what you see, feel, wish for, and fear as a loving and integral part of the community?

    Perhaps the Q&A could be introduced along the lines of, “I’d like to try something different compared to my traditional approach — splitting our Q&A time between open questions first and then more focused time thinking about what this means to this specific gathering.”

    The second part could be framed in terms of gathering affirmations (what sorts of things are we in this Quaker meeting making progress on), concerns (where are the possible gaps between where we intend to be and where we are), and action steps (what might we like to think about or do differently).

    Giving a heads-up about your plans to a few folks who have a personal interest or investment in glbtiq issues might help, too.

    Good luck!

  7. Daniel Gonzales on August 7, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    I dunno was it a hundred and six when you performed like it was in LA?


  8. Nillo on August 8, 2006 at 3:44 am

    How to walk the line between sounding like Jody Watley and letting them rest on their laurels? My grandma always said to “give the dog a good name” which meant to praise for them the things they have yet to accomplish 🙂 Peace ….

  9. Bob Painter on August 8, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Sometimes when we feel defeated, we have actually made the greatest impact.

    As Tonya said, it’s a “powerlessness” issue. You can’t force or cajole others into a frenzied response. You must do your best and trust God for the results.

    I do think it would be appropriate–should the opportunity avail itself–to “weep over Jerusalem”: in other words, express your grief over the group’s apathy, but don’t use the sadness you share to be a tool of manipulation. Sincerity begets sincerity; coersion begets coersion.

  10. Liz Opp on August 8, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    Hey there, Peterson–

    I resonate with some of the comments and ideas presented here:

    1. Feeling powerless can immobilize us in an instant.

    2. Turning the tables during the Q & A, especially if the group feels “lukewarm” to you, can offer a great opportunity for the audience members to talk to one another. Any single one of us may have an answer to the question, “So, folks, talk to each other about your complacency Why don’t you feel like you have anything to contribute…? What does anyone want to say about that?”

    3. From Bob P’s comment: express your grief over the group’s apathy, but don’t use the sadness you share to be a tool of manipulation.

    I sometimes wonder if the belief or perception that we are powerless is a result of our thinking in gigantic terms (“End all war” or “Heal racism”), so we stop our emotions and get apathetic. We stop our outreach and get complacent.

    What if we were asked to consider small, significant actions we might take? Steven Covey writes about the “circle of concern” and the “circle of influence”–who is in my personal circle that I might impact if I spoke out just once? if I shared a pamphlet just once? if I provided childcare just once?

    Sometimes for me, when I have narrowed my “audience,” my circle of influence, I have been able to feel more hopeful, as though I could make a difference… and then I begin to engage in action again.

    Break a leg!

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  11. Srina on August 8, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    i particularly like what steve and bob suggest in here. i was going to suggest some conversation in triads–sometime i think three heads are better than two. maybe look up “microlabs” on the nsrf website.

    more generally, i realized as i read your wondering at the end of this post that more and more i feel the answer to that kind of question is “figure out how to love; figure out how to show real compassion; if nothing else, draw out the reaql stories that need to be told, and listen.” you don’t have to be an activist to actively engage with people who need care and loyalty.

    i know you’ll handle it beautifully. remember to take care of yourself.

  12. Peterson Toscano on August 8, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    wow! thank you all. This is VERY helpful. I go on in about 90 minutes. Perhaps all my fears are groundless, and I will see an excellent and deep response from Friends. Then of course there is the Spirit to guide and lead us all. It is not all ME! (tell that to yourself 10 times Peterson)

    Thanks all and I’ll let you know how it goes.

  13. Peterson Toscano on August 9, 2006 at 3:42 am

    Wow! exceedingly above all that I could ask or imagine! Yeah, it went SOOO well tonight. Really well. The questions were some of the best ones I’ve been asked at show. The teenagers rocked! The adults seemed to get it, really get it. Of course we have on-going work and discussions. But the show and the q&a were very well received.

    Thanks all. Now I am shattered and am going to bed.

  14. Willie Hewes on August 9, 2006 at 8:13 am

    Very glad it went well. Bit sore that I was too late to offer my genius, day-saving advice though. XP (Joking, I don’t think I had any.)

  15. Amanda on August 11, 2006 at 1:52 am

    Peterson, I was wiped and since I’d gotten to see this play at Northeastern with Rob and Jeff awhile ago I decided to go to bed. Now I am wishing I had had internet access during yearly meeting so that I could have know you were feeling nervous and gone and held the presentation in prayer and learned from the Q&A.

    But I didn’t! I didn’t even say Hi to you at NEYM because I was feeling extra shy but I did wave and smile. I so appreciate and value your presence and service at our Yearly Meeting. As an often passive member (I’m a big “observer”) I learned this year that I have a lot to learn about engaging within the community. Thanks for helping to lead the way.

  16. Veronica on August 11, 2006 at 2:24 am

    I think liberal college student are probably just under “issue fatigue” at the moment. There’s an awful lot to be outraged by, and the enormity of it all can make a person just shut down completely.

    Or, that’s my guess.

    Of course, my little brother goes to a “liberal” college in Texas, and I can tell you that he and his friends flat out don’t give a shit about anything but their own future income potential.

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