COMMENTARY: ‘Spotlight’: The Brutality of Apathy

"Spotlight" is more than a story of abuse, it's much worse than that

I finally got around to seeing "Spotlight," the winner of the 2016 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award for Best Picture, commonly known as the Oscar; you should not miss it. In the end, this throwback movie deals with a term I saw in a book review on a different, but analogous, subject; the reviewer called it "the brutality of apathy."

The storyline – the exposure of decades of widespread pedophilia, sexual abuse and institutionalized cover-ups by a large number of clergy and associates in Boston-area Catholic churches and hierarchy – was a natural for the movie industry. It has everything the Academy loves; a dedicated newspaper fighting injustice heaped upon the defenseless, hubris, social conflict and obstruction by the powerful.  It is told by good actors using a great screenplay. There are also important underlying plot twists and relationships that I will not spoil; altogether it’s a compelling, tension-filled tale.

But to my mind, the real story is not about the serial abusers, they do what they do to the youngsters without sympathy, their actions are about the uncontrollable drive for personal pleasure with no regard for the victims. That’s bad, but the more important story is about a powerful institution and all those around the institution who were “just doing their jobs” when they engaged is denials, religious and societal intimidation, cover-ups and calculated payoffs. 

At one point, the character of passionate reporter Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, calls those facilitating the excuses “Good Germans” for practicing the same self-serving justification and intentional blindness that sustained the Nazi horrors for 12 long years.

Although we would never admit it, we all have the potential of being “Good Germans” within us. For the most part, humans believe what they want or need to believe and if it is both the urge to turn the other way can be irresistible. Most of us will never be faced with a situation as serious as the one detailed in "Spotlight," but we are often compromised a little bit at a time because ‘it’s better for everyone" or "we do a lot of good and the truth will hurt our friends." What we really mean is that the truth will hurt us. Ask yourself this, is the fellow worker who expects you to cover up his or her serious incompetence or theft really your friend?

We tell ourselves, naturally, that if anything big comes along we would never do the same, but once you start moving the line you will never cross it’s really hard, perhaps impossible, to stop it. Our protection against loss of self-esteem is often the shield of apathy. If we feign indifference or actually become indifferent we do not have to do anything; however, the truth is apathy has a brutality all its own and we only fool ourselves into believing we can keep it at arm’s length.

Knowing the difference between right and wrong and doing the right thing does not require that you become a classic bleeding heart, but it does require that you have principles you’re willing to defend even at some significant cost to yourself.

Have you ever thought about your principles and how they square with your actions or inactions? It’s not easy, but it’s a start.

Marty Richman

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer. Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects.   Marty was elected to represent the City of Hollister District 4 on the City Council in November, 2018. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.