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How Inaction Can Make One Complicit

I am a white middle-class man. I do not, and never will understand what it means to be systematically discriminated against because of my race. I aim this article at others, like myself, who perhaps do not see it as their responsibility to get involved in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. You are in fact obligated to end the systemic injustice against Black people, and other minorities, in your country and in others around the world.

I want to focus on a phrase that you have probably heard: ‘Remaining Silent Makes One Guilty of Complicity’. What does this phrase mean? Is it true?

Let us start with its meaning. Silence is the absence of sound. When used as an adjective in the context of the BLM movement it means that the silent person knows what is going on but makes no effort to contribute to the movement. To be complicit is to be involved with a thing which is morally wrong.

So, the phrase ‘Silence is Complicity’ means that you know what is going on (i.e. the systemic racial discrimination against black people) but make no effort to contribute to furthering that cause. Consequently, you automatically support the existence of systemic racial discrimination.

Your reaction to this message may be the same as mine the first time I heard it: “I’m not involved with those people who support racial discrimination just because I make no effort to support the BLM movement; I think the BLM movement is great. I just do not want to get involved, but that does not mean that I support systemic racism, let alone am responsible for the propagation of a racist system”. The rest of the work is for all of those racists out there to do; they just need to be less racist I think this response hopes to set up an option which is far more comfortable for people like me: “I don’t want to be complicit to racism, but I don’t want to get involved with the BLM movement because that’s effort. I want to say I support the BLM movement in my head and not change anything else about my life”.

Let us be clear: taking this option is an insufficient response to the moral obligation placed on us when we come to know that systemic racism is a fact within society.

This response is insufficient because you are still complicit in keeping the discriminatory system in place. The discriminatory system has the huge benefit of being the status quo. In other words, if you are not actively speaking out against the system, then you are assumed to be fine with the system as it currently stands. If no-one is voicing discontent about the system, then the system is doing a good job, and those with the power to change it have no incentive to change it. Your silence means you are consenting to a system which is discriminatory against Black people, and other ethnic minorities. You are complicit with the racist agenda of those who want the system to be maintained. In doing so, you not only fail your ethical obligation, but you make it harder to ever fulfill it.

I think this silence also points to a deeper moral failure: one of your character. You know the suffering that this system is causing; Black deaths at the hands of police being just the starkest example. Black people are also more likely to be stopped in ‘random’ stop and searches. Black people are more likely to go to a worse school… the list goes on. you are armed with the power to make change by educating yourself about these issues and getting involved with solving these problems. But instead, you choose to take the easy option, the option which does not cost you anything. That is at best, laziness, and at worst, antipathy. To know that something wrong is happening. You have the power to change it, but are not motivated to do so.

So, your silence is complicity with the people who would wish to see a racially discriminating system continue to exist. Naturally, the next question is what exactly is this ethical obligation? We can only figure out how someone responds to it well, and end our complicity, if we know what we are obligated to stop. We will start from the top. An ethical obligation is something which you should be doing if you want to be a good person. There are many different ways of specifying exactly what a good person is, but one of the criteria in any conception is working against injustice. There is systemic racial discrimination present in our society, which is an injustice carried out on personal, group and systemic levels. The obligation is to put your efforts towards wiping out this injustice, and so your obligation will exist until systemic racism is gone.

To that end, what is needed is systematic change, not individual change, and the best way to change the system is through collective action. Policymakers can ignore individuals who take the third option because it does not hurt them in the ballot box, and it does not require immediate change. But they cannot ignore collective action; it costs them votes. When enough people cry out for something for long enough, it forces action. They can either capitulate and enact positive change, or they ignore the collective action and admit that they do not care about black lives. They cannot hide behind non-committal statements like ‘sending thoughts and prayers’ or ‘there are more important things to be doing’.

A choice has to be made. That is how you respond to the ethical obligation to end systemic racial discrimination. You act with others, and you act for as long as it takes to get positive change. In closing, remember that no-one is going to be making sure that you are fulfilling your ethical obligations but yourself, and remember that everybody fails. The only person who is going to hold you to account for the rest of your life is yourself. You know how many times you have failed to do what you should have done. You know whether your excuses for failing them are good ones, or empty. But now you know what your ethical obligation is. How will you respond to it?

Sam Hadfield

By Sam Hadfield

Recent graduate with a degree in Philosophy from the University of Nottingham, please feel free to get in touch.

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