Even if you aren’t personally doing the oppressing, you are still taking a side
As Eli Weisel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” But even beyond that, not actively working to dismantle the structures that keep some people at a systemic disadvantage actually works to the benefit of those who are already in a position of power and privilege. It’s how that status gets maintained, whether you have ill intentions or not.
I recently heard an assertion that simply by not being personally racist, one could essentially opt-out of any further responsibility for the inequities of the society that we live in. This all hinged on the “presumption of innocence” — that if someone was not personally behaving in a harmful way, they should be presumed to have good intentions and to be considered benevolent. There are a lot of issues with this line of thinking, however.
You’re treating people as if they are only individuals instead of also (and in fact, mostly) a part of a society. You cannot be neutral as a member of a society the way you possibly could be in a dispute between two friends. Most racism (and sexism) is not overt hatred, it’s implicit bias and structural inequality, and so if you are continuing to benefit from that (whether or not you intend or want to) without doing anything to challenge it, you are not behaving in a neutral way at all.
Besides, presumption of innocence is a legal term that only applies to who has the burden of proof during a trial. If the state presumed the person was actually innocent, they wouldn’t be on trial in the first place.
“According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the presumption of the innocence of a criminal defendant is best described as an assumption of innocence that is indulged in the absence of contrary evidence (Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 98 S. Ct. 1930, 56 L. Ed. 2d 468 ). It is not considered evidence of the defendant’s innocence, and it does not require that a mandatory inference favorable to the defendant be drawn from any facts in evidence.”
About 6–9k years ago patriarchal dominance hierarchies first came into existence. Prior to that time, there was no class system, and humans lived in egalitarian groups/tribes/villages. It was only with the arrival of this social system that class and wealth disparity came into being, as well as a power differential between men and women. We tend to think of patriarchy in terms of a male/female dynamic, but that was only one aspect. Creating and maintaining a stratified social system requires that some people be designated as the lower part of the pyramid and then kept in that place through coercion and violence to the advantage of those who are strong enough to wield power in this way. It’s the beginnings of what is essentially a feudal system.
Besides the fact that upholding this structure in even the most nominal way perpetuates inequality, how can anyone in good conscience even pretend that they are neutral in the face of that? In a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, you must constantly dominate or risk being dominated. If you don’t win, you lose. The rules are enforced through creating fear, the threat of pain, coercion, and the ostracization or other punishment of those who will not comply.
This need not be an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women, or for straight people to marginalize gay and trans people, and it is still in effect whether or not one is actively trying to oppress or harm black people. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously. Implicit bias and structural inequality cannot be significantly impacted by your own personal good behavior.
If you are not challenging an oppressive system, particularly if you are high enough up on the dominance hierarchy to be benefitting from the maintenance of that system, then you are not neutral at all. You don’t have to be actively, personally, behaving in racist ways to be perpetuating racism. This same level of what some might call “guilt by association” is a long-standing part of our legal system.
“The general rule for felony murder in many jurisdictions is that if one defendant kills a victim during the commission or attempted commission of a specified felony, all defendants involved in the felony are guilty of felony murder (State v. Hoang, 2011).”
Your individuality as a human being counts, but your individualism is an illusion. You are not an island and the law reflects this. You are a part of a society and both your actions and inactions contribute to the culture or subculture of that society. That culture, in turn, determines what happens within the group. It is not enough to say, “I didn’t do it.” You are participating in the co-creation of the society that you live in, whether you want to be or not.
Despite years of concerted efforts to get sexual assault and harassment under control in the military, the Pentagon reported that numbers actually increased by a staggering 38% between 2016 and 2018. Better education and awareness, and even increasing penalties for sexual misconduct have had no effect because the underlying issue isn’t being addressed. If you have a culture of violent domination, that is what will take place within it.
The fact the most of the men who are in the military do not assault or harass makes no difference whatsoever. It demonstrably does not override the culture and the facts speak for themselves about that. At least 25% of women in the US military are raped — that’s 1 in 4, a significantly higher number than the already incredibly high 1 in 6 in the general population. More than 80% are sexually harassed. The Pentagon reports that about 38 men a day are also raped.
Because the military has a rape culture, it is not enough to not personally be a rapist. That doesn’t protect or help anyone, and the issue goes on, wreaking damage on the lives of a huge number of the people who are a part of that “society.” Until the culture of the military is truly changed, the problem will continue. The same goes for any other kind of social inequality. If you are not actively helping to try to change things, the culture of oppression will continue and you will be complicit in it.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.