Silence is Not Consent

As frequent readers will know, I believe in supporting equality and rejecting sweeping labels. So I was pleased to come across a discussion of the place of people who happen to be male in the quest for a fairer world that didn’t consider all men as the same. However, it did suffer from the bystander-burden issue; or to put it another way, it assumed virtue is symmetrical.

I agree with much of Bronwyn Lea’s Letter To The Good Men Out There: women face a general background level of disregard that men don’t, and many suffer harassment and worse daily; not every man is part of either this pervasive disregard or more specific abuse; most people hear messages better from those who are like them, so most men hear messages better from men; the world would be better if people spoke up for others.

However, I do not agree that not speaking up is consenting to those abuses.

Imagine you are standing on a railway platform and a child falls on the tracks. If you do nothing, the child will be hit by a train. If you jump onto the tracks, you can throw the child to safety but will be hit by the train. Clearly, saving the child is virtuous. But is not saving the child shameful?

What if two children fall on the tracks and you can only save one: are you responsible for the death of the other?

Virtue is not symmetrical: an act can be virtuous without not performing that act being a vice.

Men using their power to improve the lives of others is virtuous; and I hope men will. But not using that power doesn’t make them responsible for the actions of those who abuse their position.

We should act because we seek to do right, not because we fear to do wrong. While taken in the context of a single instance, this might seem a trivial distinction – or even an excuse for inaction – the difference is very real when many actions are considered. If I have a choice between slightly reducing prejudice against either women or the disabled, then seeking virtue tells me that doing one is better than doing neither; whereas, fearing vice tells me I am a bad person for not doing both.

And it is this emotional resonance that will most inspire the middle to make a fairer world: the human mind favours acts it enjoys and avoids those it does not; so we need to show that speaking up for others is honey rather than claiming remaining silent is vinegar.

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