If you are neutral in situations of injustice…you might just be busy and exhausted.

two buckets full of sunflowers at farmers market

I see this quote going around a lot: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

And I see a lot of similar sentiments in online activist circles: that idea that everyone needs to speak out about [insert issue here], or else they’re complicit in harming people. The implication that you’re bad or shameful if you don’t post about a specific issue on Facebook (especially if you–gasp!–post outfit pictures or other fluff instead), attend a specific rally, etc.

On one hand, yes. Silence protects oppressors. Speaking out is important and necessary. And there are some silences that are particularly egregious: like the huge numbers of white Americans posting about Robin Williams and the ice bucket challenge while completely ignoring Ferguson.

But at the same time, I feel like just keeping up with all the injustice in the world–let alone actually doing anything about it–would be multiple full-time jobs. It would be near impossible for any one person to speak out about every injustice that deserves to be exposed. And in general, it’s a good idea to take the time to do research before speaking up about something, or else you run the risk of buying into an oppressor’s narrative and standing up for the wrong side. (“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X) So even being able to speak out thoughtfully about any given issue requires a certain amount of time and energy.

And having that time and energy is, well, something that often comes along with privilege. Which is not to say that marginalized people don’t participate in activism–obviously, they do. But privilege makes it easier. If, say, you’re a single parent working multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet, you probably don’t have a lot of time to attend protests or even share articles on social media. And that doesn’t make you a bad person.

Even if you’re middle-class or rich, and privileged in a lot of other ways, your personal life–family, friends, raising kids, dealing with physical or mental health issues, caring for ill or aging family members, advancing your career (or finding a career or even just a job), finding outlets for creative expression, volunteering, trying to eat well and get enough exercise and sleep, making some time for relaxation and fun–can take up most of your time and energy, and that doesn’t mean you’re self-centered or pro-oppression.

There’s a really, really fine line between encouraging people to stand up for justice and shaming people for having lives.

I’m not comfortable with condemning the vast majority of people as oppressors because they’re busy caring for themselves and their loved ones.

And I’m afraid that saying “You must take action about [insert issue here] now! Or else you’re a bad person!” runs the risk of alienating people who do care about that issue and just haven’t had the time or energy to take it on yet. It sets up a standard of “you have to be the best, most informed, quickest-acting activist, or else you shouldn’t even bother.”

I want to run around shouting from the rooftops about what’s happening in Ferguson and Gaza. And I hope that as many people as possible join me. But I’m aware that I have more time and energy for protest than many–not to mention that I currently work in a location that makes attending rallies really convenient–and I’m not going to judge other people for living their lives the best they can.

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9 thoughts on “If you are neutral in situations of injustice…you might just be busy and exhausted.

  1. I love this post. I speak out sometimes, on issues I am 100% sure of my stance. For the rest, I think I usually just don’t have enough information and don’t have the time or energy to acquire all of the information. I know that doesn’t mean those issues just go away magically, but we are all limited by our time and energy. Some people seem to have endless reserves of energy to combat injustice (and I admire them for it). Most people have to choose which ones they’re going to put more effort (whether that’s time, money, attention, energy, or all) into. I used to hate that I couldn’t realistically help everything and everyone, but then I realized that there are so many of us out there. I put my effort into a few issues I think are really important and I trust that others will put effort into different issues they think are important. And maybe we can have a collective impact.

    Also, totally agree on the people judging fluffiness thing. Actually, I could just say that I disagree with people judging in general. So many people feel the need to judge others for this or that – it always baffles me. I think it’s really important to share sources of happiness, whether that’s an outfit, accomplishment, or something else. And when people judge someone for sharing their happiness, it’s the saddest thing. I think some people would like to think everyone should be miserable because they are miserable, or because people elsewhere in the world are miserable, etc. I know on a personal level, if I let myself get too absorbed in negative news (which seems to be most of what’s out there) and constantly thinking about suffering, I will absolutely be depressed. I already have an inclination for it, so I have to be really careful. Because if I’m depressed, I will be in absolutely no state to help anyone at all. Me feeling miserable does not help anyone else.

    Anyway, long comment but your post really spoke to me. I love reading your blog – you have such a positive, non-judgmental, encouraging outlook on things. ❤

  2. While I wholeheartedly agree with you on the concept of shaming/guilting people for not participating to a level that others think they should, I want to make a little clarification here. Mr Tutu is not talking about people who are busy and exhausted. He’s not talking about people who do care and have compassion but are not able to give as much as the world demands.

    His choice of the word “neutral” is very important. He is not referring to those who care but are unable to give as much as they wish they could. That is not neutrality. He is referring to people who sit on the fence. Those who try to play “Devil’s Advocate”. Those who say “I don’t want to get involved.” when something wrong happens right in front of them. He’s talking about those who sit in silence in the face of injustice. His statement is a really important one and I believe it shouldn’t be conflated with those who feel it is acceptable to use emotional manipulation to guilt or shame others into what they feel they should be doing. Even though some of them co-opt it – it doesn’t reduce the importance of the original statement.

    “Neutral” is not the same as burnt out, underprivileged, over-committed or generally just not able to give any more. Those of us who care are not in any way neutral.

    • That makes a lot of sense–thanks for the clarification!

      I do think it gets tricky because from the outside, it’s hard to tell the difference between a person who’s silent because they’re busy/overwhelmed/burned out/working on other issues and a person who’s silent because they just don’t care or aren’t paying attention. And when people complain that, say, half of their friends haven’t posted about Ferguson at all, they’re lumping together both groups of people. But at the same time, it *is* valid to point out the silence of many white people, as a group, about Ferguson. I think there’s a really fine line between pointing out the silence of a group and guilting people over not having the time/energy to do everything, and sometimes I’m not even sure where that line is…

      • I totally agree – the problem lies in that one cannot know what another person is doing or thinking all the time. Unless you know them personally, ie your friends and family, where you’re around them and have experienced their silence in the face of injustice, you can’t really say.

        As privileged people, I think that part of owning privilege is being uncomfortable when marginalised people call out those with privilege for not speaking up as a whole. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. The question you ask yourself at those moments is “Does this apply to me? Am I silent about this topic?” If the answer is “no”, then it’s not about you and you can move on. It’s about privileged people in general. Just like we don’t need men to say “Not all men.” because we know, POC don’t need us to say “Not all white people.” and so on. If it’s not you, then you don’t need to offer up a defense.

        But then there are those who just like to be holier than thou (usually privileged themselves) who feel the need to apply guilt and shame to others to make themselves feel more important. Those can kiss my ass!

        • Agreed with all of that! The situations I was thinking of when I wrote this post sort of fall in between the two types of situations you’ve described — it’s been white people posting stuff like “I’m glad all my friends are posting about Ferguson rather than beach selfies” or “I unfollowed one friend because everyone else was posting about Ferguson and she was posting outfit pictures and being like ‘look at me!'”

          I think, for the most part, the people I’m talking about are really just trying to amplify the frustration of black people who have noticed white silence, as a group, on Ferguson. And they obviously know their own friend groups better than I do. I know that what they’re saying isn’t about me, since I have been posting a lot about Ferguson…but I still get frustrated with the way that people are portraying beach selfies and outfit pictures (both of which I also post regularly) as vain, shallow, or mutually exclusive from activism.

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