Have you seen your money go by?Published 12:03am Sunday, October 9, 2011
Apathy. It’s a six-letter word with the meaning and consequences of a four-letter word.
By definition, the word is simply a “lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern.”
The word often gets paired with another noun — for example, “voter apathy.”
It’s a common term, but it is simply a factor of a much larger problem facing our city, state and nation — bystander apathy.
If you’ve never heard of that phrase, don’t worry. Outside a college psychology classroom, it’s probably not a phrase that gets much attention.
Psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley, who penned a book about their work in 1970, illustrated the principles beautifully in a series of experiments.
They tested the reaction — or lack of reaction — among people facing emergency situations and in particular whether people reacted differently when they were alone or in groups.
In one experiment, the researchers staged a woman falling and pretending to be hurt. Seventy percent of the people alone stopped to help the woman, while only 40 percent of the people in groups did so.
The results were amazingly repeatable and predictable.
When a participant of the study was alone they were much more likely to react to the problem quickly than if they were in a group. One theory on why we tend to react this way is called the diffusion of responsibility.
We all assume someone else will step up and help so we do nothing, choosing to let someone else in the group handle it.
As a result, nothing gets done because everyone thinks someone else will handle it.
Perhaps there’s no more troubling example of this than the bystander citizen apathy prevalent in our city, state and nation.
The higher up the civics food chain you go, the more quickly the shoulders shrug and the apathy begins to set.
Personally, I’ve tried to start relating things that frustrate me about local government into terms that I can relate — my own personal property tax bill and The Democrat’s property tax bills.
In my brain, visible government waste is compared to the money I spend — or the newspaper spends — on taxes.
Doing that makes it a little more meaningful, more personal event.
Hopefully, the frustration soon can turn from apathy into a movement of standing up and saying, “No,” to government run amok.
It’s a bit like the parent who pays their child an allowance for working around the house and then makes the child buy things from their own allowance. Doing that makes us appreciate our dollars just a bit more. Maybe the same is true for public money, even if only in our heads.
On Thursday, I spotted a new county hire driving a public vehicle — which didn’t seem necessary, given the person’s responsibilities. The estimated costs were quickly computed in my head.
When I saw the cell phone she was using, the math was reworked slightly.
“The Democrat paid for that car and the person’s salary this year,” I thought as the woman drove past.
On Friday, I happened to see the same car parked at the mall — at least it was during lunch hour.
“I guess the tax on my car tag paid for today’s gas,” I thought as I drove back to work.
If enough of us start thinking about how we’d react if wasteful government spending were truly our tax money and not just part of some larger pool, maybe, just maybe, we’d stand up together and demand change.
Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.