Joseph Cramer, M.D.: The phrase 'I don't care' is dangerously indifferent
One of the most pernicious phrases in English is not “I'm coming” or “Hold my beer and watch this.” The dangerous phrase is “I don’t care,” or IDC.
The harm of IDC is in its inherent silence. It is a loud pronouncement of apathy. It rarely makes an audible crash because we say it so often and are so ignorant of its destructiveness. It is like an infiltrating brain tumor. IDC penetrates into our everyday conversation. However, its cancerous effect comes when there is ultimately a moral crisis and our only response is “I don’t care.”
If IDC is our thoughtless reaction day after day, it grows like a mass that a surgeon can’t cut out. The habit of indifference is interwoven and hides in clear view in the brain itself. There are no symptoms until the damage is done, and then it is too late for a cure.
An innocent IDC does not exist. Whispering it does not make it any sweeter. Shouting only reveals its insensitivity and selfishness. Even if the subject is insignificant or the topic boring, the answer and the habit are not. The custom of unconcern hardens into lifelessness, then, in a moment of critical personal choice, one who claims IDC will not be strong enough to move.
The insidiousness of IDC starts when it becomes our response to two seeming equals. IDC follows a question or a choice. In reality, two things are never totally alike. We know that even identical twins are not identical, for instance; sure, they have the same DNA, but their experiences and environments craft different creatures.
It is not so much the spoken IDC that is pernicious; it is the sentiment behind it. Whether the wall paint is green or blue may provoke an automatic IDC. Likewise, whether the sandwich is ham or bologna appears insignificant at best. It is the underlying mindlessness that poisons IDC.
IDC is not directed at the paint color or sandwich filler; it is pointed at the person asking the question. It says, in effect, that he or she does not count, does not deserve a moment of thought. But in reality, no matter the subject matter, that person does warrant consideration. It's the person who is important, not the ingredients of the lunch or the color of the paint.
When we use IDC, we project a false sense of humility. We pretend to leave the choice to our friend or companion. Perhaps a different answer with the intent of deference would be this: "I do care. I want what you want. You and our friendship are more delicious to me than the toppings on the pizza."
Not saying IDC does not mean you must have an opinion on everything in the world; it just means relationships are the most important things in the world.
IDC suggests a careless but profound interest in oneself. The user of IDC defensively asks, “Do I have to waste time on the inconsequential? I told the truth: I really don’t care. The matter is not important. I haven’t wasted a moment or a thought on it. I won’t expend any sweat over it, therefore, IDC.”
An appropriate answer to the invoker of IDC would be, “What do you care about?” “When will concern kick in?” “At what point do you think about others?” We may not care about the subject, but we definitely should care about our callousness.
The greatest harm of IDC self-centeredness is that it leads to acts whose consequences are deep and lasting — we are not talking bologna here. The forewarning of guilt is silenced by an IDC’s disregard of predictable outcomes. IDC blinds us from the warning flags. We sail right into the storm.
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author, powerfully condemns IDC: “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.”
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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