“Apathy is underrated. If it was measured to the same degree as enthusiasm, we’d have a better idea of the merit of things.”
Aber Apathy, we used to call it. Back at Aberystwyth in the early nineties, whatever you tried to organise or inspire or lead would swiftly collapse amid ennui, poor attendance and a general lack of interest: your band playing to three old men and a dog; Rag trip takings down; your hot new club night or your exciting business venture. All for naught because “nobody here does nothin’ except go to the Glengower Hotel on the seafront every night”.
In retrospect, it seems clear that people went to the Glen because they liked going to the Glen, to the same extent that some of us intensely disliked it. Aber Apathy too often meant, “Other people like different stuff to me” (and occasionally covered up for “No one in their right mind would like this!”). And yes, the majority were often content to play the lumpen proletariat, incapable of being moved to passion or anger or anything beyond doing again tonight what they did last night. That’s what seeming majorities are like. That’s why the X Factor still gets relatively high ratings: dumb, harmless, undemanding yet guaranteed entertainment on a day off.
You know what? People still came to our gigs. Even my Glen-going friends were known to come to the odd one and give a convincing portrayal of having a good time (for whatever reasons), despite the fact that the band clearly weren’t Their Very Reason For Living because they weren’t the drummer or the guitarist or anyone else on stage. It’s not a crime and actually, it was generous of them to make the effort. Lots of other cool people probably came more often, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t make more effort to focus on the ones that were there instead of railing selfishly and pointlessly against the ones who more often weren’t because they had other stuff to do.
That said, I still think apathy may be underrated in other contexts. Disengagement can be at least as crucial and telling as engagement. As a specific example, I’m thinking of those workplace satisfaction surveys to which flailing employers often resort when they’ve lost contact with staff morale. I can recall occasions when I deliberately, wilfully chose not to participate because by that point, I was too disenchanted - too far gone - to hope for any improvement. Missed responses like that don’t really figure in the analysis later. Sure, there’s a response rate, but people pretty much shrug off the lower numbers there because it’s almost always a relative minority who bother with surveys anyway. (If it isn’t - you have a large majority instead - you can put the missed ones down to sickness or absence or isolated misanthropy.)
My argument is that you should score a small minus number for every unreturned questionnaire or absent response. Sure, you might get +90% satisfaction from the ones who responded, but you might get -30% total from all the ones who didn’t - the people who think you’re so crap and who are so fed up with this bullshit that they don’t even believe you’re capable of improvement if they tell why you it’s needed. That’s the figure that ought to concern you. (As a participant, you can tell when a survey gave unwanted results, because they’re never reported. Which might be fine, except they’re often buried rather than studied.)
In the wider situation, it would be more revealing to know how may people could have but didn’t as did choose for a given option - TV ratings, album sales, votes, etc. Wouldn’t it be great if we knew the ‘considered carefully but then dismissed’ figure for more of the stuff we’re told is ‘popular’ and ‘BIG’? Maybe a few puffed-up people might revise their assessment of their own importance and reach a more sober conclusion in its light. (More likely though, I guess they’d shoot the messenger and blame the victim. But they’d be considerably more isolated in that than previously.)