Head-to-Head: If You Do Not Denounce Morally Objectionable Actions, You Are As Guilty As the Actor

 
 

If you do not speak up to call out the actions of others, are you complicit? Adam Lawler and Dylan O’Neill argue for and against the motion respectively, with Adam Lawler’s piece and Dylan O’Neill’s rebuttal appearing first, followed by Dylan O’Neill’s piece and Adam Lawler’s rebuttal.


 

FOR

In favour of the motion, Adam Lawler argues that silence can ruin lives and careers and propagate harmful beliefs.

Complicity is a punishable offence. Everything from helping someone to rob a bank to listening as your friend plans a murder could land you in prison, and the phrase “aiding and abetting” is firmly in the legal lexicon, as is the word “accomplice.”

However, there is a type of complicity that does not amount to prison time, and with it comes a huge canyon of moral grey area that is currently being explored. The overlap and disparity between plain unlawful and simply morally wrong needs to be addressed.

A huge canyon of moral grey area is currently being explored

Harvey Weinstein is case in point. After a staggering number of actresses came forward with allegations of sexual harassment, an equally staggering number of male actors have come forward to say that they had previous knowledge of Weinstein’s behaviour. This extended period of discretion allowed Weinstein to rack up countless more offences, terrorise more women, and ruin more lives, all of which could have been stopped dead if someone had spoken up.

This is especially important in cases of sexual assault, where women still have difficulty being believed. Men need to be allies, and making an admission like a child mumbling an apology for not stopping his friend throwing rocks is not enough.

On a wider scale, president Donald Trump denounced the actions of white nationalists in Charlottesville with a whimper of a statement before backtracking completely, thus further incentivising a group who do not need encouragement. A US president failing to use his position to denounce a known hate group, which is constantly growing in influence and threatens the country more every day, is the definition of complicity. This is to say nothing of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. Whenever she speaks or posts online about any issue from sexism to bullying, hordes of people scream in unison, “Why do you not say this to your father?” Her complicity in her father’s twisted regime has gone so far as to be parodied by Saturday Night Live, and her silence is deafening considering that she is in the position to affect real change.

This is especially important in cases of sexual assault, where women still have difficulty being believed

This is a large-scale example, but we need to look at the effects of complicity on a campus level. #Fight4Katie, a campaign run for and by former UCD Students’ Union president Katie Ascough to avoid impeachment in the recent referendum, was covered by Breitbart, an American right-wing news outlet. After a UCD student posted a screenshot demanding the campaign denounce Breitbart, the page stated that it would be “imprudent to condemn a news outlet for spreading their opinion on the matter.”

This statement, which amounts to “that has nothing to do with us,” is insubstantial, considering three things. Firstly, the nature of the site is widely known to be a propagator of hate and vitriol. Secondly, the opposition many already had to Ascough’s views and suspicions that they impeded her ability to act as SU president. Finally, the fact that parties outside UCD and even outside Ireland are known to have helped with her campaign. Ascough herself released a belated statement after the backlash but with all of this known why, with so much to lose, would the campaign not immediately release a statement distancing themselves from the site and denouncing their views? On the other hand, SU sabbatical officers distanced themselves from Ascough, a necessary move considering the damage done to the SU’s reputation by the issue.

Silence is no longer a choice people can make at their leisure. It is a form of complicity. It can mean the needless propagating of suffering when simply using one’s voice can help to save lives and careers, and raise awareness for issues that are too often overlooked.

 

REBUTTAL by Dylan O’ Neill

Speaking up against deplorable acts, whether committed against you or someone else, is obviously the ideal, especially where victims have difficulty being believed.

In cases of sexual assault, how can we expect victims to speak out when the people to whom they report the crime are skeptical of its occurrence? Should we condemn them for their silence? No. The problem is not that the victims remain silent and thus should be held as accountable as the perpetrator, the problem is that we will live in society that does not provide a safe refuge for victims to report the crime without fear of backlash from the perpetrator.

The use of both Donald Trump and Katie Ascough as examples further illustrates this point. Both were elected into a position and given a platform, becoming instantly recognisable to their public. Their inability to denounce white nationalists and right-wing publications, respectively, highlights the divide between them and the general population. These cases must therefore be treated as isolated incidences as they are misrepresentative of the majority. Trump was elected by the Electoral College not popular vote, and Ascough was impeached by 69% of the students who voted in the referendum. Both have received extraordinary assets that are not available to the general public, so we should expect them to denounce morally objectionable acts as they carry more weight than that of the general public.


 

AGAINST

Opposing the motion, Dylan O’ Neill argues that some are not in the position to denounce the actions of others. 

From the safety of your computer screen it is easy to comment anonymously and pass judgement on the acts of others. When it comes to publicly sharing your opinions, it becomes more difficult to openly denounce these acts without putting yourself in the line of criticism.

Take, for example, a young child experiencing homophobic or transphobic abuse from a parent or guardian. They don’t have the financial, let alone emotional, means to openly call out their parent/guardian and face the consequences of possible abandonment. In this case, we would understand the child’s silence and not condemn them as equally culpable as their abusive relative.

Another situation in which denouncing morally questionable acts does not make you just as guilty is when all the information is not yet known. We live in the age of the Internet, and information is available to us at the touch of a button, but how reliable is the source? Waiting until all the information is available before passing judgement does not mean you condone the acts in question, it means you want to make an informed decision on the situation as a whole.

Information is available to us at the touch of a button, but how reliable is the source?

In November 2012, after the BBC made public the Jimmy Saville scandal, Lord McAlpine, a former Conservative politician was reported to have sexually abused a former resident of the Bryn Estyn children’s home. After Newsnight reported this story, there was a public uproar. However, the High Court ruled that the accusations were wholly false and BBC apologised.

It is easy to accuse people of not standing up against intolerance in the world because ideally, we should follow the example of our role models. However, our role models are usually famous and utilise the platform they have been given to lead and call for a better society. Unfortunately, this only applies to the privileged 1%. The majority of people do not have the means of name recognition to be so vocal about morally questionable acts and elicit such a national outcry against them.

Recently in the news surrounding the Harvey Weinstein scandal, there came to light stories about a whisper system among female actresses to warn each other about potentially dangerous men. These women did not speak openly about it, because they could not, for fear of being blacklisted and putting their careers in jeopardy. I do not hold these women accountable for the actions taken by one man, simply because they did not speak publicly about it. I blame the culture of not protecting these female actresses that Hollywood has allowed to grow. While I admire actresses such as Rose McGowan for taking to social media to denounce the actions of Weinstein publicly, her Twitter account was temporarily locked after she spoke out against him which is a clear indication that the culture still at large.

It is easy to accuse people of not standing up against intolerance in the world

It is the classic case of the Trolley Problem. In this thought experiment, you are standing beside a railroad track with an out-of-control train trolley coming towards five people tied up on the track. You see a lever beside you that, if pulled, will divert the trolley onto another track where only one person is tied up. Do you pull the lever?

If you were to pull the lever, you would be actively committing the murder of the person on the other track who would have otherwise been safe. By not pulling the lever five people will die, but are you really to blame? Not pulling the lever and refraining from involvement, while questionable in its own right, is still not the same as actively taking a life. This is taking it to the extreme, but the point still stands.

 

REBUTTAL by Adam Lawler

You say you do not hold the actresses accountable for not speaking out sooner, and that is exactly the point. We blame Harvey Weinstein for perpetrating the act as well as those who knew about the actresses and remained silent, not the actresses themselves. In the case of various forms of abuses perpetrated by friends, family members and strangers, these people do not have the means to speak out because they are the victims in this situation. Therefore, they cannot and are not complicit. It is usually not possible to be complicit in your own mistreatment. We do not blame the victims because there is already a clearly defined term for that.

We are not talking about the people who are on the receiving end, we are talking about the casual observers who are aware of a creepy uncle’s predatory passes, the guy who never calls out his friend’s racist comments.

Yes, it is important to ensure information is true before spreading it, but even when the action in question is one hundred percent true there is a good chance it will itself be denounced as untrue, congruent with the new post-truth movement. Yes, there are more high-risk situations that require care and sensitivity, but the basic truth is that if someone witnesses or is aware of someone’s morally objectionable actions and, if they can, do not act, they are just as guilty.

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