Picture this; there’s a fire outside your house and the people you’re with are busy discussing the latest episode on commercial television. You’d think to yourself that it isn’t their place to fret. Here’s a hard-to-swallow pill; apathy. Apathy is the most fitting word. And it is for the privileged, not just a mere personality trait at this point.
Rather, it has always been for the privileged. For instance, let me direct your focus towards two hundred thirty-one years ago; a crowd of rightfully enraged Frenchmen stormed the Bastille Prison in Paris. It was seen as a symbol of aristocratic power, triggering a tussle that took a macabre turn as it became increasingly gory. It may seem like a trivial event to most folks but was in fact one of the turning points of history and one of the first in a long line of events that would collectively be known as the French Revolution. The hierarchy that existed at the time was consisting of the domineering Catholic Church and the monarchy. Cumulatively, they created a society where despite consisting of less than 3% of the population, they owned a massive majority of the wealth. It wasn’t just about owning wealth though, it was about flaunting the wealth you own and creating an illusion so brimming with grandeur that the common folk could never aspire to achieve it. So regal that they established the dominance of the monarchs and gave them an almost god-like status.
In societies such as France where wealth became the sheer sole symbol of status and happiness, the tyrants always reigned supreme. In a state ridden with natural calamities, riots, and incompetent leadership of the French King Louis XVI which lead to heavy taxation borne by the common public who were mostly peasants; you must think to yourself that at some point they’d have a heart. Here’s what happened. When confronted with the daunting food shortage of the country, Marie Antoinette, the queen of France said “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake”.
The French Revolution on account of its subsequent descent into tyranny nevertheless accurately portrays how a society where the rich get richer and the poor sink deeper almost always leads into the chaos of the worst kind. Simply put, in a society that prefers order, there exists a natural state of the hierarchy of the classes and one class that benefits from the status quo.
The mayhem of systematic oppression.
As I look back at the French revolution and the injustices it was born out of, I feel it would be utterly unjust to not draw any parallels with the contemporary world.
Take this incident for instance; workers protesting against Jeff Bezos’ harsh employee policies at Amazon; even erected a guillotine, a sour symbol of the French Revolution right outside his house at one point. This rage among the workers is certainly not an immediate reaction. It accounts for a build-up of years of being wronged and the refusal of the authority to correct its wrongs, the grave realization that the rich with their amassed wealth will always work to maintain order in society because it would help them stay at the top and maintain the very hierarchy the workers in this context had grown to question. Or how the lack of wealth is almost something we joke about casually without realizing the lives of those who are worse off. We mock those who can’t pay their fees in due time and we mock those who don’t have enough money to fulfill their needs. Or perhaps this might explain; here’s another example: how historical caste privilege and discrimination has boiled down to modern-day “merit” – the poster child of Brahmanical, upper-caste supremacy. Or how Islamophobic rhetoric in India has been shoved down our throats and most individuals from religiously majoritarian communities would either strongly push the bigoted narrative further or simply choose to ignore it because they reiterate claims such as “I do not like talking about heavy topics such as communalism”.
The economically privileged do not address abject poverty suffered by the hands of the masses, upper-caste dialogues never involve acknowledging savarna privilege and brutally prevailing caste discrimination, Hindutva mobs wouldn’t flinch before breeding anti-Muslim hate, yadda yadda, etc.
If even this exhaustive mosaic of unbridled tyranny described in these examples couldn’t stop someone in their tracks and blare out, blatantly proclaiming that apathy is for the privileged and rather has someone thinking “for how long must anyone care? life goes on”, they’re ridden with the bug of something called as being an abhorrent individual. Downright vile. Through and through. We are still apathetic towards the needs of people simply because they don’t concern us or affect us personally. It is however necessary to realize in this case, that it’s our privilege that allows us to do this. We can afford to be neutral and yet sustain ourselves. Our privilege is the impetus that makes us confused between the concepts of “order” and “justice”. Just because something has existed for a long period of time, doesn’t guarantee that it is inherently just. Even today, we see people more concerned with maintaining the order of society than with actually building a just society for all.
No longer can we afford to have an attitude where we disregard the struggles of disadvantaged groups (socially or economically) and trivialize them. Simply put, we can’t keep telling the disadvantaged to eat cake when they can’t afford bread.
This write-up has been written by Akshiti, IInd Year.