OPINION: Neutrality is complicity

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.

  • Alec Moore

    How did you come to the conclusion that white supremacy is to blame for everything that is happening in Ferguson and Gaza?

  • GenJJPershing

    ” . . . we have an ethical obligation to stand on the side of justice when our government is responsible for so much destruction around the world.” You’re either very ill-informed or terribly naive. Try publishing this sort of self-righteous collegiate tantrum someplace else “around the world” and see what happens to you. Is America perfect? Hardly! What other country has done what the US has to promote democracy, literacy, health, nutrition, or human rights around the world? Which one?
    If you’re SO upset — quit cozy, comfy, GMU and put yourself personally at risk. Go DO something. Unless, of course, you are “complicit?”

  • Jinkies

    I wholeheartedly agree that one shouldn’t have to accept the way an issue is framed by media or by textbooks. We should examine and rexamine articles, books, and movies, the way they present issues, and assess our own biases. That said, I am also a firm believer that if there is truly a topic that someone is passionate about–say racial profiling, global warming, or whatever–then he or she has an obligation to study the heck out of that topic. If anything makes you angry, then study, research, and debate until you are confident enough in your own stance, and familiar enough with the opposing arguments, that you can eloquently state your case. Too often people get fired up on an issue when in fact they have no clue beyond one book or one news channel, and only talk about that issue with others of the same opinion.

    The article above talked about *a lot* of issues, and while I generally agree with the conclusions, I can also understand why some of the differing views mentioned may be more or less justified. This is not “neutrality or complicity.” I would not shut down, for example, one person who says that slavery was about racism, and the other who says it was about economics. I would say that both views are legitimate, and trace the logic. But because I’m particularly passionate about the issue of freedom, I’d add that religion, developments in science and sociology, international politics, domestic politics, and economic warfare all ultimately supported a systematic and sickening subjugation of an entire group of people. If anyone questioned the horror of slavery, I would enthusiastically endorse Frederick Douglas, Tony Morrison, and Harriet Anne Jacobs. And for those who then say “schools talk about slavery too much, which has led to a victimization culture,” well, that might shine a light on their personal experiences and the references they rely on. Whereupon I would want to hear more….you get the idea.

    Basically I have only this one life, and I will never learn about the experiences and references others use to form their own perspectives unless I am open about mine and they are open about theirs. Being open to hearing others while sharing one’s experiences is the only way to change hearts, and once the heart is changed, so can the mind. If rush opinions and anger have led to the waste of so many lives, then we, who are alive, owe it to those who have passed on to speak out not with anger, but with passion measured by clarity and openness. I appreciate your article, and if we do find ourselves in the same room I’d be open to a dialogue.