I’ve been thinking about the idea of “apathy” a lot recently, and the more I do the more I doubt its usefulness.

A lot of what’s taken for apathy is actually, I think, despair. It’s a nagging, grinding, chronic despair that leads a person to think that what’s wrong will always be wrong and that they can’t play any part in changing it. It’s not apathy, because apathy would mean that they didn’t care. They do care, often, but they’re resigned to things the way they are because they think they’re powerless.

This is something I talk a lot about with students when they bring up the question of campus apathy. I ask them whether the problem is that other students don’t give a damn about the barriers they’re facing, or whether they just assume those barriers are insurmountable. My hunch is that it’s usually mostly the second, even when it looks and sounds like the first.

And it turns out that this is good news. Because if the problem in your community is apathy, you have to convince the people you’re working with to care. If the problem is perceived powerlessness, then your task is very different.

Convincing people that they have power is hard, of course, but it’s easier than browbeating them into giving a damn. And it turns out that the best way to do it is to go out and start making change — which means that the work of activism and the work of movement-building wind up being the same work.

Another important element to this is that many students who get dismissed as apathetic are really just busy. Busy with schoolwork, busy with jobs, busy with their families and friends. Or busy with projects that aren’t your project.

Not everyone has the time or energy to be an activist, and that’s okay. Activists do their work in part so that non-activists can live their lives without having to be activists themselves.