Earlier this year, the world lost one of its greatest leaders in social justice, Elie Wiesel. A Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, and spent his years as an author and very public advocate for tolerance, social justice and world peace.
Although he is now gone, Mr. Wiesel has left some very important messages to our younger generations that can and should provide the basis for our social justice education, particularly on the topic of indifference and how that can unfold in our lives and the way we relate to each other.
This article is a brief examination of the V-Day 1999 speech called The Perils of Indifference presented by Mr. Wiesel to the then-President Bill Clinton and his wife (and former Presidential Candidate) Hillary. It contains some thought-provoking quotes and meaningful messaging about how we can’t be indifferent bystanders to the atrocities that happen in our world.
What is Indifference?
Meaning “no difference”, Wiesel describes indifference as a “strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.” With this definition, Wiesel introduces us to state of being that many of us are guilty of, yet has become perfectly acceptable in today’s society; as Wiesel states, “it’s troublesome to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.” We like to keep our heads down, and keep to ourselves, afraid to intervene in case we may cause ourselves inconvenience. Instead of taking a stand when we see others experiencing strife, we remain indifference: the bullied kid within your child’s class, the family down the street who has gone through a job loss; knowing a classmate of your child is living in an abusive family; the acts of violence and racism faced by LGBT or people of color, all of it.
The Bystander vs. Upstander
In this speech, Wiesel boldly presents The Clintons with stories of the American’s role of indifference in the Holocaust. While the Americans were eventually instrumental in the release of the persecuted Jews in the Concentration Camps, the Americans being revered for this throughout history, they displayed damaging indifference in the early years of World War II as bystanders. He tells of the indifference of the United States after the Kristallnacht event, where 1,000 Jews escaping Nazi Germany were turned away. He questions why this happened; why were the Americans inactive in the war until much later than when they were needed by those who were suffering? The indifference displayed by America, before Roosevelt mobilized the United States Army, are still scars for Jewish people that will continue to be the narrative of their history.
The message of Wiesel’s speech to the then-commander-in-chief is that we cannot, as human beings, stand by, do nothing, and allow others to suffer. According to Wiesel, “to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman”. The bystander, that person who is indifferent, is just as guilty as the aggressor if they do not take action; the actions of the bystander, the person who does nothing to help that child who is struggling with bullying, or the person facing persecution and violence, that family experiencing job loss, magnifies their pain as he or she is left to feel forgotten.
On a more macro and global level, the upstander is what is still needed within America. We live in a scary world, where we are seeing people become victim of aggressive injustices, that require people to be mobilized to make America a country free from persecution, pain and suffering. We can learn from history, both the bystanders and upstanders, as we influence our emerging generations.
History will forever contain important lessons for us, serving as important reminders of where humanity could have done better, so that we as a collective can work together to reduce the suffering experienced in this world. Wiesel’s speech reminds us that justice starts with taking responsibility for times of indifference, and resolving to correct that indifference moving forward.