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None of the Above: My Philosophy of Action on Social Justice Issues While Not Taking Extremes

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of AFP.

Courtesy of AFP.

I came across a Youtube video today on my feed that really pushed my buttons and even caused some internal conflict for a bit. Ever since the Atlanta shooting last week where eight people died, including six Asian women, there’s been a similar reaction of justified outrage against racism. This time pertaining to Asian-Americans. If you are against racism in general, there is tremendous pressure to see all of these as a part of the rise in assaults on Asian-Americans in America. The police’s not -entirely enthusiastic response not long after the shooting, with their tone and how they spoke about the assailant having ”sexual addiction” issues doing little to persuade many people otherwise.

What got me though was the demand from media personalities to immediately agree with the larger narrative perspective, from Trevor Noah to the numerous Youtubers pushing this before I even had a chance to do any research into what happened. At least beyond a Twitter feed. The common narrative was the same however: if you don’t automatically think this was racism, then you’re the problem and you need to take a side.

While I am convinced that there is racism at play here on some level, it was not because some person on a screen makes more money than me, or mob mentality said so. In fact, if I’m honest, I would say that when they try to bully me into a political or moral stance, I’m more prone to reject it: despite being a Black man who had his own issues with racism. I came to this conclusion on my own from doing the research and watching the body language of those who are supposed to be preventing it.

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the tormentor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

— - Elie Wiesel


The Youtube video in question was very intelligent, as well as very passionate about its position and why the commentator believed so strongly in taking a stance. I agreed with most things he said in fact. The reason why I diverged from total acceptance was because I think that he and others like him were making a gross assumption about those whom I call ‘middle-people’.

Middle-people are those who either don’t hold one opinion or another on a particular issue, or that even if they do have one, they are not hardcore apostolic about it. You are probably familiar with the sentiment that to not take a side, to be tolerant, is to be inactive about the problem at hand. That people who refuse to join a faction are either weak, already converted to the other side depending on whom they’re talking to, or don’t care enough about others outside of their own circle.

I am not going to say that there are not middle-people who are like that. The human experience is too varied and diverse to categorize people so easily, despite popular tendencies. What I will say is that as a middle-person myself, I am neither of these things. I was involved in protests both with BLM and support for Middle-Eastern immigrants trying to enter the country when President Trump passed the ban on certain countries. I will take stands where I feel the necessity too.

So why will not join a side, at least whole-heartedly?

Pied Piper

There are three main reasons why I take this position as a default. First is being aware where and whom I am getting the information from. Media bias is no secret anymore in today’s society and yet equally, many people still fall for it depending on the right narrative being pushed. If one were to see a movie playing up a stereotype of someone from a marginalized community, they may immediately be suspicious of that portrayal as intentional propaganda rather than any kind of fact or joke. But if that portrayal started showing the same person in a different circumstance or light, something that was unrelated to the trope and more positive, they might be less inclined to question it. All the while not being aware of other ‘tropes’ being worked into the new narrative.

Also it's a proven fact that the more you repeat something to someone, be it a word, phrase, or a picture, the more accepting of it many people will become as that perception becomes the truth. There are many examples, the most pertinent to me is the hyper-conservatism of the 1950’s- early 60’s. Events like McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the resistance to new styles of entertainment like Rock n Roll and open sex were loaded with messages of the threat of communism and the righteousness of traditional America. All of them hammering home the message that if you didn’t support those values or tried to challenge them, then you were one of the communist/socialist enemies. Something protesters later in the decade would find themselves labelled.

You may as well have been a Nazi.

Over the course of the next fifty years, this began to switch. Americans were now being told that if you held any doubts about different lifestyles and favored the more traditional values of post World War Two America, that you are a facist, or racist, or anything of the like. Just like how it didn’t matter in our parents/grandparents' time that you could still like Elvis Presley and still want to get married, neither did it matter that you may not like someone's’ lifestyle choices but still be willing to live side by side with them.

All of this is a large result of the narrative drilled into the collective zeitgeist by the media.

Courtesy of Associated Press.  Actor Jussie Smollet was convicted in 2019 for faking an assault on himself.  Before the facts had surfaced, many people quickly sided with him.  Afterwards, many were embarrassed, despite the larger issues being real.

Courtesy of Associated Press. Actor Jussie Smollet was convicted in 2019 for faking an assault on himself. Before the facts had surfaced, many people quickly sided with him. Afterwards, many were embarrassed, despite the larger issues being real.

Partially Blind

My second reason for not taking sides is that it has almost always led to a blind spot being created in the side that is chosen. Regardless of the injustice that caused it, to choose a side is to submit to all the ideologies that side holds. Once you join the team, there is no questioning of their rules. You get your gear and play your part.

This blind acceptance in the righteousness of your chosen factions ignores the fact that said faction is still composed of human beings, just like their enemy. Again going back in history, the Cuban Revolution overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista for good and moral reasons. Batista had oppressed and murdered people who stood against him for years and diverted the majority of the money that the island made from tourism to the army and those in his inner circle.

To hear the words of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during those times, it's easy to want to join the fight: especially since you probably were suffering from the current regime already. However, what ended up happening was that when the revolution succeeded, Castro began implementing the same methods that the deposed Batista had. No one was allowed to question him and power only went to a few instead of the people. Even Che was eventually pushed out because he believed as a true communist revolutionary, that his one-time friend and ally had strayed from the path.

There’s a reason why the verses, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” exist. Human nature is always susceptible to corruption. To a perversion, no matter how small, of the higher ideal it is striving for. And more often than not, that seduction involves something having to do with personal gain and position, And the fear losing it. Like having dessert for the first time, once people experience something rewarding it becomes exceedingly difficult to give it up, distribute it equally, or to not be afraid of someone taking it from you.

If justice is truly blind and distributed its reward and/or sword equally without discrimination, then it's no wonder why civilization has struggled with it since it’s conception.

My final reason is that each side has a story why they have the opinions and beliefs that they do. One side or the other might be brainwashing, manipulative, or possibly be entirely correct. But they believe in it all the same regardless.

People demanding joining a faction often see this as accepting the enemy’s lies as truth. After all, we all already know ‘why’ they think that way right? We know why a skin-head and KKK member is racist. We know why someone wants to be referred to as “they”. It’s a narrative that’s already been filled in by some source or experience, going back to my first reason.

Let me be clear: empathy and understanding why someone does what they do does not mean accepting that position as just or lawful.

A criminologist studies criminal behavior to get inside a perp’s head not to become a criminal, but to help prevent another one cropping up in its place. Ever since 2016 and with every national tragedy involving shootings and prejudice, and especially the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been hearing many people ask “Why in this day and age”?

And yet the reasons were always there for anyone to gather and even circumvent such outcomes. The problem lay in the unwillingness of either side to investigate those reasons or try to see what would drive that position. To my mind, this seems more emotionally driven than rationally. That’s not to say that emotions don’t have their place, especially ones that result from an injustice happening to that person or where they’ve suffered a loss.

At the same time, no matter how justified it is, they can also blind the person from other factors at play that led to that situation or options to move ahead for resolution. As Arya Stark said about causes for making bad choices,

“..So can fear. I’ll go with anger.”

Does anger get shit done? Yea it does, but it does not always generate the outcome you want.

This is a major reason why both middle-people and even many within the factions are open to discussion and public debate.

"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect."

— - Mark Twian

My Conclusion

Ideally, every faction should have some element in it of self-reflection, not only to remind themselves of why they’re there, but also to reflect on whether it’s taken the right path or become something it didn’t want to be. The Counter-Culture movement forty-some odd years ago began as youths wanting something different and more open than what they’re parents had. It also wanted to truly live the justice and essential morals of being a good person that they were realizing their country wasn’t practicing, despite its preaching.

Yet by 1969, the only vestige of that ideal was in the first music festival of Woodstock. Everything else about it otherwise had become twisted into hostile and chaotic protests against being drafted and the Vietnam War. Some sub-factions within it were more aggressive than others, such as the Yippies that caused the Chicago riots at the 1968 Democratic convention.

I choose my involvement based on case by case and moment by moment. Others can be like Arya and “go with anger”, but for me that is both too misleading and too easily to manipulate. When I go into something, I go in with eyes wide open, seeing as many factors as possible to determine if that's where I want to be or not or if I feel the cause is just. I stopped being Christian because the churches I went to supported not asking questions for the sake of maintaining faith.

Until such a movement, if one can even exist, has that equal level of self-awareness and drive to stop injustice, I choose for myself not to choose. Because not choosing a side is not inaction on my part. It just means my actions are not in relation to yours.

© 2021 Jamal Smith