2015-12-29 – Today I saw an interesting quotation on Facebook and reposted it. I’ve been having second thoughts about it though, so I decided to write about it. First, the quotation, which is from Elie Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Sounds right, no? Especially when you realize that Wiesel’s call to action comes in reaction to the world’s silence during the holocaust. You can’t be silent. It is a moral imperative.
Or is it?
My objection to this has to do with distance and the motivation for taking sides. To analyze this I’d like you to consider three battles going on in the world today. One involves ISIS in Syria. One involves Boko Haram in Nigeria. And one is framed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States.
Everyone is eager to take sides against ISIS in Syria, but people are ambivalent and apathetic about taking sides in the other two struggles. Why is that?
Of course it’s that #BlackLivesMatter is too close to home and Boko Haram is too far away. I would argue that our priority concern should be #BlackLivesMatter and that other folks should take up the other battles.
That would be hard, of course. Carpet bombing would have no effect in resolving the racial struggle going on in our country. Making black lives matter requires minds to be changed. Making black lives matter requires talking and understanding and difficulty choices.
So off we go to another foreign adventure where carpet bombing will have little effect, where we have little chance of achieving anything but the prolongation of suffering because we have no understanding, where we don’t even know who is on what side.
Remember that George Bush took sides in a battle that he knew nothing about.
And Boko Haram. Why is it more important to fight ISIS than it is to fight Boko Haram? Because of the race of the victims? Because of oil? Because of our historic meddling in the Middle East and not Africa? Why is that?
Wiesel is, of course, right. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. We rejected refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. We did nothing to disrupt the operation of the extermination camps, even though we were already fighting in the neighborhood.
But, you know Wiesel’s injunction doesn’t just apply to Americans. It applies to everyone. The Danes opposed Nazis in their own country and saved Jews. Other countries in Europe chose sides and came down against Jews. They had a moral obligation and they failed at it.
Take care of your neighborhood first.