What does it mean to be indifferent? The word itself is not all that clear. Is indifference a purely neutral term, referring to an absence of feeling? Or is it a negative term, meaning unfeeling? Is it synonymous with apathy?
For the Greeks (apatheia), and even for some Buddhists, there was a state, much to be desired, when one was without feeling for the external world, a form of dispassion (nishkãma, literally, “without love or desire.”) Even though I taught Sanskrit texts in which this achievement was praised, I never really believed it possible. Or if it was possible, I did not see it as a good thing.
How can we ever be without feeling when we see something terrible happen to a neighbor? At the very least, there must be an unconscious identification with her? “That could be me.” Is indifference a mask for fear? “If I intervene, will something violent happen to me as well?” And when something bad happens to a child, can anyone honestly say it does not affect them? If somebody is drowning, and we do nothing to help, will we not be scarred with guilt for the rest of our life, even if we could not possibly have saved the person?
There are those who say no. They point to how widespread indifference appears to be in the animal world. When an animal is “taken” out of its herd by a predator, the others continue grazing, as if nothing of major importance had just happened. Or so it would appear to us. But in truth we don’t know what the other animals in the herd feel. Relief that it’s not them? Grief because the one taken was a daughter? What we see as indifference could simply be something we do not recognize, or for which we have no word, or no understanding. It is hard enough to understand human feelings. Even Darwin acknowledged that when a cow looks at a dead herd-mate, we cannot possibly know what goes through her mind.
Sociopaths, we say, have no feelings of sympathy, or empathy. Or rather, they might well feel empathy: they can imagine the pain felt by another. But they feel no sympathy. They don’t care. If they are the source of the pain, they feel no remorse, or, worse, take pleasure in the suffering they have created. We don’t like those people, but we fear them, and we fear they are becoming less visible, but more widespread, hence books like Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.
But is there any such thing as a psychopathic snake? Snakes are simply doing what snakes do. It is not personal. Snakes do not have enemies (humans have lots of enemies, including snakes). Snakes don’t have a choice. Only humans can be psychopaths. Which means that only humans can be true bystanders, people who watch a tragedy and make no attempt to intervene. That is what we mean when we talk about the “problem” of the bystander during the Second World War. We don’t just judge individuals, but whole countries, neutral Switzerland say, or Sweden, and we contrast them with other countries where a greater effort was made to save the innocent, for example Denmark, or even Italy in spite of its alliance with Germany.
We don’t know enough about animals to refine our understanding of their simply “standing by” while their companions are picked off. But we do know that what is taking place is about food. Humans are rarely sentimental (that is, have feelings) about what they eat and how what they eat came to be food. Maybe animals are the same? If this is so, maybe the roots of indifference in the negative sense of the term are to be found in our willingness to eat what was once a living, feeling animal. If we gave that up, would we reconnect with feelings we have suppressed, repressed, or never known? I ask the question because I am not sure of the answer. There are always vegetarian psychopaths.