Katie Byrne: Escape artists - Is apathy really the root of all evil?
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
I got chatting to a cab driver about the US presidential elections as I took an Uber through Los Angeles last week. He was smart, insightful and funny… until he told me he was voting for Donald Trump. Our easy rapport became a little more clipped after he landed that one.
There was a time - as recently as a month ago - that I would have debated this with him until I was depositing flecks of spit on his rear-view mirror. On this occasion I just slumped further into my seat and wondered if the Mars Mission was still accepting applications.
It's unsettling to feel the world shifting in a direction that you can't comprehend or contemplate. It's lonely, too. When you don't resonate on any level with a popular movement, you can begin to feel like a rudderless boat bobbing in the middle of a vast ocean.
I feel like this a lot these days. Perhaps I'm getting old but I just don't get so many of the latest trends, theories and inventions. I can't fathom the popularity of Starbucks, Kanye West, FiveFingers toe shoes, adult colouring books or fitting-room selfies.
I can't tolerate the infantile neologisms that spread like mutant viruses through the lexicon of popular culture. On fleek? Totes emosh? Bae?
What's worse is that these words seem to infect by social osmosis - at least that's what I hoped happened the day I told my colleagues that I was "chillaxin' for the weekend" with absolutely no sense of irony.
It could be that I'm just a Luddite. Admittedly, I refuse to imagine a world with Oculus Rift headsets and I don't understand why - or more to the point, when - we became completely nonchalant about the incremental erosion of our digital privacy.
Or maybe it's generational. I've noticed that the equality police - those who accuse others of cultural appropriation; invent gender-fluid pronouns and insist that we check our privilege every time we're ordering a curry - are generally in their mid- to late-20s.
While we're on the subject, this pseudo-liberal movement purports to establish equality. In my view, it further entrenches the lines that divide us.
The age of outrage has also created the perfect polarity for an irreverent, tell-it-like-it-is, anti-PC candidate like Trump to emerge.
The official Canadian Immigration website crashed after Trump's triumph on Super Tuesday. This dovetailed with a sharp spike in the number of people asking "how can I move to Canada?" on Google. (I've asked Google similar questions regarding Costa Rica and Cozumel.)
Received wisdom tells us that the best form of attack is defence. In the modern world, we seem to think that the best form of attack is withdrawal. If you can't beat 'em, run away from 'em... to Canada, or Goa or even Mars.
I know a couple of bona fide misanthropes who opted out of society when they decided that critical mass was just too big a boulder to push against. They live in stone cottages on secluded stretches of woodland and divide their time between reading Nietzsche and the Daily Mail online's sidebar of shame (just to be reminded about everything that's wrong with the world).
Likewise, I know plenty of spiritual-seekers and self-styled Nomads who float from one Vipassana retreat to the next, searching for the enlightenment that's never going to come.
These are isolated examples of a much wider trend. Social withdrawal is in fact endemic in some countries and within certain demographics.
Hikikomori (meaning pulling inward) is a social phenomenon affecting young adults in Japan. They refuse to leave their homes where they can stay for months on end. Elsewhere, social researchers have identified an emerging group of young men withdrawing from intimate relationships with women and retreating into video games and pornography.
These people are on the fringes of society but I wonder how far the rest of us are behind them? We're all withdrawing in our own way: avoiding phonecalls in favour of the WhatsApp feedback loop; binging on Netflix; taking our iPhones to bed... and then wondering why there's a social anxiety epidemic.
The trouble with withdrawal is that it ultimately leads to detachment, and detachment can lead to apathy.
We label those that opt out of society as "hermits", "recluses" and "loners"; we forget that they also tend to be the deepest thinkers and the most sensitive souls.
They are weather-worn idealists - but idealists nonetheless - and we need them in the fray rather than sneering from the fringes.
The people who have the greatest potential to effect change are very often the people who ultimately withdraw. Perhaps it's time to give them a nudge.