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On apathy, self-interestedness, and joy

Photo Credit: https://freesvg.org/shrug-gesture
Photo Credit: https://freesvg.org/shrug-gesture

Last week, the ‘Prince’ reported that two students are working to revive Princeton Against Gun Violence (PAGV). The 2018 “We Call BS” rally, co-sponsored by PAGV, was held in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. This rally, as many of my upperclass student peers will remember, was one of the high points of student-led organizing on campus in recent years, along with the Title IX protesters last May.

Despite these events, many politically-minded students decry the supposed apathy of our peers. Are we actually apathetic about the world, as many of these students claim? Put more bluntly, is it true that we simply don’t care? It seems to me that this belief is mistaken. First, it’s not clear that we should be in the business of criticizing our peers for aiming to find happiness in their decisions about what to do. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Princeton’s environment makes it especially difficult for students who might otherwise be interested in activism and politics to actively participate. As such, we should be much more understanding of our peers before being critical of them, with the goal, of course, of being a more open and inclusive community.


On the first point, I actually think apathy is a misnomer for students’ attitudes. Apathy seems to imply that our peers do not care deeply about anything. I think that when we discuss the apathy that supposedly permeates the campus’s culture, we are referring to a much more specific phenomenon — namely, that of self-interest. Many of the conversations that I have had with friends on this issue are about how Princeton students put their own desires and preferences about how to spend their time over political and social issues. I think that when we refer to our peers as apathetic, we are tacitly charging them with being overly concerned about their personal interests and priorities, to the detriment of being concerned with larger social and political issues, like gun reform.

Is this attitude of self-interest wrong? Let’s assume that at least some students have chosen to care more deeply about activities like sports, dance, music, or academics rather than about social and political issues. This self-interest can come off as apathy about the world around us, but that is not necessarily wrong. We are permitted to do things that bring us joy. We might want to suggest that we should get joy out of activism, but to say that is to ignore the fact that all of us are different and we cannot expect everyone to have the same tastes and preferences.

Another reason for lack of political engagement could be that the University is structured in certain ways to make it hard for students to adequately take part in social and political movements, whether intentional or not. For instance, our fall break exists as a response to a strike about the Nixon administration’s invasion of Cambodia. While the University officially instituted the break – conveniently scheduled for the week before election day – to allow students to campaign off campus, it could plausibly be read as the University wanting students to do these sorts of activities off campus. 

Moreover, we all feel the day-to-day stressors of the University’s academic rigor. The average class is difficult and requires a large time commitment. As a result, we all feel pressure from many sides — faculty members, families, and our peers, among others — to do well here at Princeton. Whether that pressure is justified or not is a separate question. But experientially, it seems that many of us do feel that pressure.

It is that pressure that may keep many students from engaging in activism on campus. It seems unfair of us to assume that our friends don’t engage in political activism because they aren’t affected by it. Indeed, it might be the case that those who are least privileged don’t engage in politics because their livelihoods could be at stake if they fall behind in classes. 

We should be more understanding about the so-called apathy of Princeton students. It is wrong, I think, to condemn students for being uncaring when we live in an environment that shapes our motivational structure away from the desire to engage in the world around us. Human beings respond to incentives and barriers; the incentives and barriers that exist at Princeton shift our attention away from social and political matters.


Perhaps we should be working to reshape those structures — I do not want to deny that. We might be responsible for doing that work, and as long as we don’t, we may be shirking our responsibilities. But even if that is true, which is not self-evident, it is overly harsh to criticize our peers for responding to the incentives and barriers that are presented to us.

If we are truly aiming for a more inclusive, open, and welcoming community, we should welcome the fact that students, like anyone else, seek happiness and find it in different sources.

Sebastian Quiroz is a senior from Deltona, Fla. He can be reached at squiroz@princeton.edu.

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