What message does Elie Wiesel want to convey in his speech "The Perils of Indifference"?

A central message that Elie Wiesel wants to convey in his speech "The Perils of Indifference" is that indifference to the suffering of others is dangerous and evil. He warns that indifference is more dangerous than hatred or anger, because it involves not acknowledging the suffering.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Elie Wiesel 's speech "The Perils of Indifference" condenses the essence of its message into the title, though it is a more general condemnation of indifference than the word "perils" might suggest. Wiesel begins by recalling the rage in the eyes of the American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald. He was...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Elie Wiesel's speech "The Perils of Indifference" condenses the essence of its message into the title, though it is a more general condemnation of indifference than the word "perils" might suggest. Wiesel begins by recalling the rage in the eyes of the American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald. He was grateful for their anger, for it reflected his own. One ought to be angry about the concentration camps, just as one ought to be angry about all monstrous cruelty. To be indifferent is to become monstrous oneself.

Wiesel admits that indifference can be seductive because it is easier to ignore suffering than to act. Ultimately, however, it is dehumanizing, since one must ignore the suffering of one's neighbor. Apathy is also a purely negative thing. Anger or hatred might lead one to write a great poem or compose a symphony. Axiomatically, nothing great—indeed, nothing at all—has ever been accomplished through indifference. It is entirely sterile.

The speech also makes the point that even a great man like Franklin Delano Roosevelt can have his honor tarnished by indifference to suffering. He refers to the St. Louis, a ship with one thousand Jews on board, which Roosevelt sent back to Nazi Germany. One of the greatest presidents of a great country was still capable of being indifferent to suffering.

Indifference is more dangerous than hatred because it is so much more common, but people can be awoken from a state of indifference and taught to care about each other. This, finally is the message of the speech, and the task it seeks to accomplish. This is why the speech ends with the images of dying children and the message that

Some of them—so many of them—could be saved.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several messages that Wiesel conveys in this speech. First of all, he points out that it is always important to remember atrocities and crimes against humanity, rather than the alternative, which is to forget about them because they are unsavory and depressing. It is important to remember, he suggests, so that we don't repeat the same mistakes.

Wiesel's main message, however, is that we should guard against becoming indifferent or desensitized to atrocities and crimes against humanity. It is easy to become indifferent or desensitized when these atrocities and crimes seem to be so frequent, but it is also dangerous. As Wiesel says, indifference "can be tempting" and "seductive," but it is dangerous because it "reduces the Other to an abstraction." In other words, victims of atrocities and crimes can become, through indifference, an idea removed from our reality, rather than fellow humans who are suffering. Arguably, this has happened with gun crime in America today. People have perhaps become desensitized to these crimes because they happen so often and are no longer as shocking as they once were, and with desensitization comes a relative degree of indifference and thus inaction.

Wiesel also highlights the pain caused to victims when other people look on, indifferent, and do nothing to help. He says that the suffering of these victims is intensified if they believe that their fellow humans are indifferent; in this case, the isolation or alienation of the victims becomes quite hopeless.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Quite simply, Elie Wiesel, in his speech "The Perils of Indifference," wants us to know that when someone is indifferent to the suffering of another, he/she is just as guilty as the person causing the suffering. When we stand idly by and do nothing, we become accomplices to a crime against other human beings. During the Holocaust, Jews were marched through towns to concentration camps, and most of the people who saw them watched without any concern for their well being. Actually, many of the local residents taunted them, threw rocks at them, spit on them, and did other horrible things. Neighbors turned their backs on Jewish neighbors and stood indifferently by when the Jewish neighbors were taken away by the Nazis. Wiesel's speech emphasizes that this is how evil takes hold. We are all in this together, and we must stand up to evil wherever it exists.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In short, Wiesel's main point is to praise people who stood up for the victims of the Holocaust and condemn indifference.  Just to be clear, the definition of indifference is the state of lacking any care or concern for a person, place, event, etc.  However, Wiesel wants to make sure especially that his audience understands he is speaking specifically about indifference towards any person who is suffering.

Wiesel (who made his speech on April 12, 1999), praised President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton for their fight against injustice.  Primarily, Wiesel defines indifference and gives the stipulations mentioned in the above paragraph.  Wiesel then mentions, by name, those during the Holocaust who were the  most notorious for the trait of indifference. 

Wiesel poses many questions in his speech, and often asks if the world has less indifference than before.  Wiesel doesn't completely focus on the positive as a result.  He does mention that we approach the new century with "fear," but also with hope.  Indifference, therefore, still exists.  Unfortunately, while it exists, horrid events such as the Holocaust are always possible. Thus, because of indifference, history can repeat itself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

He wanted to convey that indifference is worse than hate or anger. One could be angry at injustice or hate evil, violent acts. Indifference is the absence of compassion and implies something worse than outright hate; indifference implies a lack of acknowledgment. Being indifferent to another's suffering is like saying, 'you're suffering is not even worth my consideration.' Wiesel speaks from his experience of the Holocaust, but this could be applied to any situation in history in which the world was indifferent; in which the world willfully refused to acknowledge suffering of others for any number of unjustifiable reasons: 1) out of sight, out of mind, 2) passivity, laziness, 3) an untried feeling of hopelessness ('what could i possibly do?'), 4) selfishness. When Wiesel speaks of indifference he also means ignorance in 3 senses: 1) ignorant as in lacking sensitivity, 2) lacking knowledge and 3) ignoring.

The 'perils of indifference' could be described as the 'the terrible outcomes of ignoring atrocities. Apply this to anything today, where suffering is ignored by indifferent people and governments. (i.e., Darfur, Haiti). The peril of indifference would be to allow (allow by ignoring = indifference) an atrocity like the Holocaust to occur again.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team