The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Indifference…is the epitome of evil.
--Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Laureate.
My first reaction to elderly Asians being assaulted was outrage, sadness, and disappointment. Outrage and disappointment that at this point in our history in North America, this is happening, and sadness for our elder generation that has already gone through so much more racial discrimination in their lifetimes, while trying to pave a better life for us. The central tenet of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation of immigrant Chinese was to provide for family, often making clear personal and material sacrifices with complete dedication to provide for the next generation. They deserve better, and outrage is simply not enough. What can we do that is actionable and that will make a difference long-term?
I am no authority on these issues; however, I found it beneficial to learn from those who have experienced tragedy, emerged stronger, and advocated effectively in the past, and I came across the importance of vanquishing indifference. The venerable Dr. Wiesel’s insightful quote is that the opposite of being moved into action by love is not hate, it is indifference. Bystander indifference, he argues, is what allowed the atrocities of the Holocaust to happen. Like those two security guards who closed the door as an elderly Asian woman heading to church was viciously attacked in NYC. These are the first steps of indifference that can lead to normalized hate. Those who do nothing and allow things to happen become culpable, an accessory to the fact, and enablers of hate crimes.
We need to prevent indifference both in regards to and within the Asian community. If we don’t do anything actionable, then we are functionally indifferent ourselves, and are similarly responsible when this becomes more pervasive, which it will continue to, left unchecked. It is common in our culture to be encouraged to rein-in confrontational thoughts, to keep them to ourselves, to stay in our own lane, and not to complain too vociferously. This is a different time. While our collective Buddhist pedigree prides itself on equanimity, this is sometimes misinterpreted with the “near enemy” of indifference. Compassion, however, is what compels us to act.
Indeed, it seems true that indifference can be more dangerous than hatred, which itself can be addressed more directly when it arises. Indifference facilitates the growth of hate. It is true that to the affected group, indifference is arguably the worst position to take because it actively denies their existence. We need to persuade the silent majority, those who do not have a direct stake in our wellbeing, to care, and have compassion that moves them.
I would submit that it starts with education:
1. We need to recognize all incidences of racism and hate, call it out by name when it happens, and support those advocating against it: so that those who perpetrate it are held accountable, and all can see that what they’re doing is wrong. It starts with the small transgressions, the lack of respect and mispronunciation of a name like with the current Vice-President’s, the plausibly deniable dog whistles of the previous administration, and the slant-eye gestures I’ve personally seen parents make in front of their kids. It all needs to be documented, recorded and reported before it rises to the level of a criminal offence, otherwise, what does it tell their kids? That some forms of racism are okay and tolerated? It is our responsibility not to let it go, and to recognize and educate others as well as ourselves when it is pervasive and subversive. The key is to prevent an escalation to the level of a hate crime. It’s a slippery slope. Bystander indifference is the exact sentiment expressed by the Captain of the police force in the Atlanta shootings, whose statement to the press outrageously resonated with the killer, allowing the mainstream press to plausibly deny a clearly misogynistic and racially motivated hate crime killing spree. Indifference is what allows hate to grow. It allows hate to be normalized.
For the current movement against Asian racism to have a lasting impact, we need to stop underestimating its pervasiveness, and our effort to counter it has to be inclusive. Fundamentally, calling attention to verbal transgressions is not about being politically correct, it's about being respectful to a person’s humanity. While it can feel frustrating and exhausting, it requires genuine effort and vigilance, and ultimately, that effort helps everyone. Nothing good, worthwhile or useful is ever easy. Even if we assume that the majority of people are well-meaning, racism is nevertheless not uncommon, and at the very least tolerated. In addition, as elections have highlighted, majorities themselves can be precarious, sometimes floating at a tenuous 50.1%, and if we are not vigilant, complacency allows the other 49.9% to swing social norms in the other direction quite easily. What is socially acceptable is a choice, and we need to choose wisely.