One of the biggest lies we’ve been fed about the way the world works is the idea that there are two sides to every issue. From our elementary school teachers attempting to resolve disputes to pundits on cable news, this mantra has been so exhaustively entrenched in the way we think about the world that it’s become difficult to take a step back and ask: should this really be the way the world works?
In Ferguson, Missouri, many Americans insist that a police officer overreacted when a black youth charged at him after robbing a convenience store – by the officer’s account. Both sides are to blame, never mind the fact that one is dead after being shot six times.
In America’s discussion of historic Palestine, Israelis are bombarding the Gaza Strip while Hamas fires rockets into Israel in a seemingly never-ending dispute. But these two have been killing each other forever, so they’re both to blame, never mind the fact that over 2,000 besieged Palestinian men, women and children are dead compared to two Israeli civilians.
Let’s take it back further. America’s War on Iraq was bad, but leaving them to their own devices resulted in the nihilistic cult that is ISIS, which can’t be our fault, of course. In apartheid South Africa, a vulnerable white minority simply wanted to ensure their safety in the face of the disgruntled, disenfranchised black majority. Slavery was terrible, but it was about economics, guys. Not race.
When you pay taxes to a government whose military has been responsible for the destructions of Iraq and Afghanistan, carries out extrajudicial assassinations in Pakistan and Somalia and funds the occupation forces of the ethnocracy of the Israeli state, you do not have the luxury of being neutral or apathetic.
Pretending like there are two equally blameworthy sides ignores the imbalances of power that are apparent in every political and social issue. Conflict does not occur in a vacuum, and once an issue is historicized and contextualized, there is always a clear aggressor asserting dominance over a weaker party. When we look at history, this imbalance is generally understood, but it never seems to apply to our understanding of conflict today.
The notion that both sides are to blame doesn’t just indicate the ignorance of the American millennial, but the harboring of a more sinister atavistic prejudice. When we support fighting terrorism with state-sponsored terrorism, we view the lives of our victims as being worth less than our own. When we maintain that both sides are to blame in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, we casually brush aside the lives of 2,000 Palestinian civilians in accordance with our inherited tradition of anti-Arab racism. Although nothing could have justified an unarmed 18-year-old being shot six times and left in the street for four hours, when we make excuses for the officer, we are drawing upon our ancestors’ anti-black racism that still pervades our consciousness.
As Americans, we have an ethical obligation to stand on the side of justice when our government is responsible for so much destruction around the world. We can’t afford to be neutral in these issues, because our neutrality is our complicity. “I don’t care about politics; this is why I don’t follow the news,” mantras of apathy and detachment that our generation is so fond of, are actually not detached at all but forceful political declarations siding with the aggressor.
Most of us have read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in public school. When I read it with my ninth grade English class, we collectively saw the town of Maycomb as a distant relic of white supremacy over which we held the moral high ground. The jury that indicted Robinson and the white townspeople who stood idly by couldn’t bear any resemblance towards us. I reread the novel this summer around the time of Michael Brown’s murder and found myself hearing the same uneasy neutrality directed towards Brown’s murder as the fictional residents of Jim Crow Alabama had directed towards Robinson. Except this time, Brown was not on trial for his alleged actions as Robinson had been. He was dead.
There’s a certain disquiet that comes with knowing that wherever and however white supremacy manifests itself, whether it’s in America’s Jim Crow South, 21st century Missouri or occupied Jerusalem, Americans are able to fall back and absolve themselves of any ethical responsibility.