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Asking Question and (Re)visiting Inspiration: Exploring Apathy Through Kony 2012

[Total Read-time: 8 minutes]

As I'm sure you heard last week, a video on African warlord Joseph Kony went viral and racked up an impressive 100 million views in about a week and a half. Everyone was talking about it. As an aside, Justin Beiber's "Baby" music video has about 700 million lifetime views.

Young folk: the Kony conversation seems to be a wonderful exhibition of how our generation is completely flummoxed by inspiration. Other generations have their problems too, but I'm talking to us for a second.

So, to all teens and twenty-somethings:

Apathy is an integral part of our generation's American cultural identity. When we're criticized by older generations for not caring, we dismiss them. We care about things, after all, it's just that adults don't see it. When we're criticized by our own generation for caring, we dismiss them. We don't really care about anything, after all, we just thought it was kinda cool for a few minutes.

In high school, apathy looks like a sign of strength: "I don't care if things don't work out, whatever, I don't give a s***!" If you don't care, smack talking can't hurt you, disappointment can't hurt you, rejection can't hurt you.

In college, apathy is either cheap armor or the evil villain. As armor, it protects us from looking foolish; from being both uninformed and inspired. As the villain, it is to be avoided at all costs, even if the cost is stagnant optimism.

After college, apathy is the once-distant storm that has finally reached our doorstep. It's heart-wrenching to watch your once-vivid dreams fade to a dull gray, and the disappointed brow of your family and friends only makes things worse. Better not to have great dreams. Makes you feel stronger.

Whether or not these are your dominant narratives, we all recognize them and have played into them to some degree along the way. This is why we have conducted the conversation around Kony 2012 in the way that we have.

Kony 2012

The video was obviously polarizing: many absolutely loved it and were inspired to spread the word and maybe contribute, and some were skeptical and pointed to possible shortcomings. But I don't really have anything worthwhile to say about the content of the video, the organization/people who produced it, or any African social-political issues.

We need to talk about inspiration. Well, actually, we need to talk about how the kinds of questions we ask each other hold us back from being truly inspired participants in the world.


In short, we trick ourselves into thinking that a question is a form of argument/critique. Wrong. Questions and arguments are two very different kinds of things. The important difference is that in the case of a question, it is the question-asker's responsibility to figure out the answer. A "skeptical" question is no substitute for a critique.

Sure, we can ask "Are Invisible Children's financial practices ethical?" or, "Does supporting the campaign do more harm than good?" but that's not an argument against the organization. It's the starting place for a process of inquiry. The question is only the first of roughly seven steps of the scientific method--the most rigorous method, that is, that humans use to understand the world. Scientific method need not involve numbers and data. It can be broken out along these lines:

  1. Define a question
  2. Gather information (observe)
  3. Form a hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis
  5. Analyze the results
  6. Interpret the results and posit a tentative conclusion that serves as a starting point for a new hypothesis
  7. Repeat

The problem is that (mis)using "skeptical" questions as arguments allows us to ask a question, to not answer it, then to substitute any opinion and justify it with the fact that no one could provide an answer. The fact that no one can answer our question does not mean that we're right, it means that we've just barely started the process of inquiry.

So what?...

Once we confuse arguments/questions like this, we've just fabricated an excuse for not having to answer our own questions. We pretend like we're not responsible for finding answers, and if our opponent can't give us a good one, we can substitute any conclusion we want. It's an insidious and crippling form of self-deception. It's lazy, sloppy thinking, and it unjustly sucks the passion out of the newly-inspired.

With the recent announcement of the embarrassing arrest of the Kony 2012 filmmaker, many people skeptical about the movement's integrity have rubbed the arrest in the faces of the movement's inspired supporters. Apathy is an integral part of our generation's American cultural identity, and these sorts of reactions to the arrest are the voice of a particularly clever brand of apathy.

I don't think that opposite of apathy of inspiration, I think it's empathy. To see people rubbing this story in other's faces sounds to me like saying, "Look at how wrong you were about this and how stupid you look for caring about something so quickly and so intensely. You should be ashamed of yourself for being so inspired before you knew the whole story."

But I don't mean to berate anyone; we've all done it. It makes me think of this:

(Un)inspiring Questions

The process of "learning through playing around with something" that Ze Frank describes in this video holds true whether the activity has dire consequences, or if its consequences are relatively insignificant. When we are inspired by something new, we should expect to fail at it again and again: to be wrong about it again and again. The consequences of our failures may affect other people, but the failures are necessary nonetheless. It takes a lot of courage to throw yourself into the arena and to be eager to learn from your failures. It's much easier to sit in the stands day in and day out. Much easier to criticize the bloodied, beaten souls who fight their hearts out, only to be reunited with the cold stone of the arena floor.

With the Kony 2012 issue, it's not a matter of whose support or skepticism ultimately does more good/harm. Supporters and skeptics are still just observers: spectators, out of harms way and above all the dirt and sweat, watching as the battle goes on far below.

Well, maybe not actually out of harms way, but at least it feels like it most of the time. Spectating only hurts during the moments when we have the bleak but fleeting sense that we're not growing as fast as those toiling noobs below us. Those moments are few and far between. The roar of the crowd and the enthused chatter of our skeptical/supportive compatriots quickly drown them out.

To the skeptics: it can be hard to tell the difference between your fellow spectators (whether they be supporters or skeptics) and those who have just stepped out onto the arena floor to begin struggling. But remember that empathy is the antidote to apathy, and that the death of inspiration leaves wounds that are not easily healed.

To the supporters: it can be hard to tell the difference between whether you're in the stands spectating or struggling in the arena. Remember that a difficult question is just the first stone on the long path of inquiry, and that just like you, sometimes your critics forget this.

Reader Comments (3)

Excellent point; and an insightful summary of that dreaded characteristic of our generation: "apathy".

March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatasha

Hi Nathan
My name is Steven Burrows or on some forums I am known as valisgonzozen, most shorten it to Valis. I first came across you on the Bleb info forum several years ago when you had just had your lung operation. I was recovering from a 70% collapse and saw your posts and the post about your blog. Since then I have followed it and been Interested by the varied content and intelligence of those pieces.

At the time I was inspired by another formulite on bleb info to start running after reading his blog on running which now seems not to be going anymore.
Having just got over another lung issue I have started a blog in the hope of similarly inspiring other S.P suffers to see that it is not the end of the world or life and that they can recover and enjoy an active lifestyle.

One thing I have noticed is the lack of genuine information, Bleb info being a rare gem. I have a link on my blog to your Wonderful Brainchoclote and I am hoping that you would do me the courtesy of putting a link to mine on yours.

I believe the more positive resources and connections out there the better for others going through the same experiences that we have encountered.
Now I will leave it up to you if you want to include a link to my blog and should you come to the conclusion you do not wish to associate then no problem, I will leave a link to your blog unless you wish for any reason for me to remove it.

valis the link to my blog I hope you enjoy it.

I have tried sending this to the email address on your blog but with no success and so the link in this form may not work please copy and paste this if that is the case


Many thanks
Steven Burrows

October 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersteven burrows

Hey Steven,
Great to hear from you and to hear about what you're doing. I've poked around your site and I'll definitely link it up. I especially like your Spontaneous Pneumothorax info page. It's awesome to see that you're pushing hard to be active etc. That's the biggest mistake I've seen people making over the last several years, and the same mistake I made after my first surgery in 2006. Keep up the good work and please keep me updated.

I've become pretty obsessed with biochemistry and endocrinology since my second surgery in 2010, and it's led to a theory that seems to be relatively solid in terms of biochemical mechanisms and was pivotal to my thus-far-ongoing success with things lung-related. I have a strong suspicion that many/most SPs are autoimmune related. I suspect that glycoalkaloids like Solanine are involved, as the mechanism for action seems like it's there. I just haven't had enough time to really dig through the literature. On your website, you mention elastase and alpha-1-antitrypsin imbalances as related to SPs. This also seems to be very tightly related to all this.

Anyway, without writing an entire paper here, here's by far the number one thing I'd recommend: eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy from your diet for two months and see how your lung stuff goes. Sounds totally random, but it all makes sense on a biochem level. I very highly recommend reading this book. Though he doesn't discuss anything related to SPs, it's a great primer on nutritional biochemistry (in common/entertaining language) and is also a great way to get started figuring out what to eat.

I took grains/dairy/legumes out of my diet close to 3 years ago and haven't had a single lung problem since. The only times when I have had discomfort/worry is after eating those for a few days in a row. On top of all the lung stuff, my physical/mental performance is consistently way higher, I always have tons of energy, and my bloodwork recently blew my doctor away. I'd be happy to talk through the why and how after you read the book if you have questions.

Anyway, keep me updated.

November 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterNathan Pai Schmitt

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