It’s a common reaction to want to avoid holding an opinion on controversial things. You don’t understand all the intricacies, and you don’t want to risk offending anyone or even sounding stupid, and that’s a very valid option in certain instances. If you are not well-versed in economics, and I ask if you think using survey weights in a regression is right or not, you have every right to step back and say, “Hey, I have no clue; I’m not taking any sides.” (By doing so, you would probably be a few steps ahead of most economists.)
Additionally, there may be times when you like people from both sides of a topic. If you’ve watched the Twilight series and didn’t feel strongly about it, you’re probably doing the right thing by saying you’re neutral when your friends ask if you’re team Jacob or Edward. Wanting to stay neutral is a natural and valid option in many instances, but it’s not possible in every case. For example, when human rights and lives are involved, should one continue to stay ignorant? Should one be neutral in issues that have large and real-life consequences?
Saying that you’re not taking sides during times of political conflict is, unfortunately, not the pacifist option you think it may be.
You’ve probably heard of the famous quote by Desmond Tutu, a South African bishop and theologian who was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
If you haven’t put a lot of thought into this topic, it’s not unusual for you to be confused by this quote. You specifically chose not to pick a side, so how could you end up picking one? I invite you to join me in dissecting this quote, and to be okay with diving into controversial topics.
What Tutu refers to in this quote is actually a simple idea, and I can explain it to you using an everyday example, which isn’t related to politics. Let’s say you’re at a park, and you see a seven-year-old taunting an even younger kid. If you watch this occur without saying anything — after all, you don’t know the history between them; maybe the smaller child insulted the other first — you have implicitly chosen the side of the bully. You watched this happen and didn’t intercept it, even though you had the power to do so. You may not have intended to do so, but picking the easy path has consequences for the younger child. Similarly, in larger and much more complex political matters, when you choose to “abstain” from decisions because you want to avoid being “political,” you’re still taking a stance. So, can we ever really be neutral?
Whether you pick a side on the events taking up space in your For You Page or social media feed, a basic fact that we can all agree on right now is that, as someone who is reading this article, you are alive. You exist during a time when conflicts all around the world are happening. By the time you finish this article, this will also be true. Either way, you will be a part of history.
The small choices you make every day may not feel significant at the moment, but as you move through the world and make connections, you will leave the earth having made an impact and having been a part of history, even if it is brief.
So, whether you decide to recognize a conflict, you will be implicated in history.
Have you ever wondered how people in the past let certain atrocities happen? When the conflict isn’t right outside your window, it turns out it’s not that hard, right? Unless your family is being directly affected by bombs being dropped on people’s heads, you can still scroll past posts fairly easily.
We are living through one of those pivotal times when it’s not easy to be informed, and when it’s easier for your mental health to live in ignorance or to choose neutrality.
Undoubtedly, what’s happening in the world can seem too complicated for you to “take a side,” but this is about more than picking sides. After all, when two countries are involved in a conflict, simply picking one side assumes that everyone on the other side shares the same opinion. Instead, it’s necessary to recognize the histories that led to the conflict, and understand if the two countries are on equal footing.
It’s also important to be aware of the biases that may be present in the media you read. Though there’s much to be said about this topic, you may have noticed that specific stories can be covered entirely differently when certain identities are involved. Sometimes, it’s the bias of the journalists themselves. Other times, it’s the bias of a government reflected in its publications.
A current event you have likely heard of is what is happening in Gaza. It may seem like the conflict that is happening right now is a “war” that just occurred, but Gaza has been occupied and had its natural resources controlled by Israel for over 50 years. It’s easy to say that the situation is complicated, but it’s important to think critically about who benefits if you choose to stay neutral, and who has the media power to define the conflict in the first place. If I’ve been able to convince you to take action by at least being aware of what is happening in Palestine and in other social issues, then I ask that you do so carefully too.
Be aware of who has a stake in the published news and the biases some publications may hold.
Be mindful of who can shift public attitudes when, for example, certain adjectives are used to describe people on the receiving end of violence. Hindsight is 20/20, but it takes courage to be informed and cognizant in the moment of conflict and to take action if you have the means to do so. I urge you to be comfortable stepping outside your comfort zone and not shy away from seeking knowledge, even if it seems complicated.
I’d like to thank everyone who took the time out of their day to sit and talk with me about this topic, and whose insights informed the contents of this article.