“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

I grew up trying to be neutral so seeing this quote was one of a few that completely altered my life’s direction.

I enjoy being a positive person, but when being a positive person leads me to avoid taking sides or hiding my true values then I am being an individual who supports our current power structures.

Desmond Tutu’s words show us that as our nonprofits, community organizations, and friends increasingly state their desire to be “nonpartisan,” we must remind them that by aiming for neutrality/nonpartisanship they buttress our oppressive systems.

Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading moral voices and activist for ending institutionalized oppression, saw first-hand in South Africa how being neutral was a partial reason for the continued strength of the apartheid system.

Freedom fighters struggled for decades before the international community stepped out of their “neutral policies” and denounced South Africa’s apartheid state. Even then, many nations advocated for gradual reforms from the government, instead of supporting the movement demanding the realization of the Freedom Charter (principles for a new just society) and the overthrow of colonialist institutions.

South Africa and the United States reduced their levels of repression only when committed groups and individuals took a strong stand for the values of justice for all people.


Silence and neutrality


“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel

Photo: PinkMoose via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo: PinkMoose via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Today we are constantly faced with injustice (e.g. school-to-prison-pipeline and exploiting indigenous land to fuel dominant fossil fuel use), though many times we stay silent. Some may be quite vocal about a few issues, but remain neutral in areas “outside their area.”

In particular, I’ve seen so many organizations refuse to do what they think is right, because taking action “might upset the funders.”

Most funders, whether from foundations or government, encourage organizations to work within existing power structures, resist groups that are politically active and mobilize against governmental, financial, or cultural systems (even if they clearly perpetuate disenfranchisement). This suppression of activism occurs because funders are already deeply entrenched in current ways of operating.

If our groups are operating under the barrier that they must be neutral and avoid confronting our existing institutions of power, then don’t you think they are going to have to keep solving the same symptoms of poverty, educational inequality, and health disparity over and over again?


Impossible to actually be neutral


“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral ” – Paulo Freire

Often in more liberal or community development fields, there is a strong desire to remain impartial and “objective.” However, in doing so they “side with the powerful.”

While having a desire for collaboration, consensus, and community is not bad necessarily, we have to keep in mind that these ideals can expand the reach of injustice.

For example, dominant male culture promotes the expectation that men should ignore sexism and just accept that “boys will be boys.” This passive bystander approach to sexism, is one of the main contributors to our extremely high rate of sexual violence.

By saying one is “not going to take sides” and just remain on the sidelines (e.g. allowing someone to blame the victim), these individuals provide their tacit acceptance.

So how we change this culture of neutrality?


Building a culture of active response to injustice


“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict…[an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote provides another voice that starkly outlines the damage caused by neutrality, but it also leads to one of the primary ways we can build a culture of active response to injustice.

Speak out against any and all injustice, both large and small. Whether you witness an act of interpersonal oppression (e.g. homophobic comments) or you see a trend of institutionalized oppression (e.g. the media and politicians correlating those with mental health issues and violence), try to find ways to illuminate darkness.

Share the voices of those committed to exposing injustice. If you are not ready to be as vocal as you wish, highlighting the thoughts and actions of those dedicated to denouncing injustice (e.g. Angry Asian Man and Feministing) is a great way to build your own courage (it certainly helped me!).

Analyze areas of your organization and life to see where you have remained neutral, in order to decide how you will become active against oppression. I know I rarely, if at all, thought about where I was neutral since it was so ingrained in my every behavior. Thus, you may need to take a close look at where you are quiet and where you have started to express yourself.

Agitate for increasing how your organization (and even yourself) encourages an environment of active responses to injustice. Identity how you can provide training, change policies, and lead by example.

Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King Jr., provide a clear moral and strategic outlook at how we can approach neutrality. Their lives show that taking a stand is challenging, but is essential to dismantling injustice. Luckily, we have the opportunity to learn from their experiences.

Have thoughts or examples on other ways to resist neutrality? Post your thoughts on Organizing Change’s Facebook page!

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About The Author

Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+

  • Mom

    I disagree that you grew up trying to be neutral. Being neutral suggests you were uncaring, uninvolved, and suggests indifference. At a young age you became deeply impassioned to save the rain forest and donated birthday and Christmas money to a rain forest conservation fund. As your understanding
    of conservation grew you followed us around the house turning off lights, limited your personal consumption of clothes and material goods and began
    donating to the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy. In other words you did what you could given your age and understanding of life. Never did I consider you neutral. I also don’t agree that neutrality was ingrained in your every behavior. Being polite, considering both sides, compassionate while faced with adversity, communicating nonviolently yes, but neutral no. Your youth was laying the groundwork for what Thich Nhat Hanh said in Creating True Peace “We must first practice mindfulness and grow compassion in ourselves, so that peace and harmony are in us, before we can work effectively for social change.”

    • DrewSerres

      That’s definitely true that I sought out ways to make an impact myself. However, in this context of being neutral I was very silent on speaking out against injustice. I conducted my own individual actions, but it’s hard to think of a time when I went out of my way to confront injustice. You’re right that I may not have had the skills to speak out when I was younger, but now that I know the extent of injustice and more confidence in my own abilities it’s now time for me to illuminate where oppression and privilege still exist.

      I also really like your Thich Nhat Hanh quote. I think we need that mindfulness/compassion when conducting social change work.

  • Msrebel

    I would welcome any suggestions re what action to take in this situation: an alcoholic man abused (violently) and neglected his wife and children over a 20 year period and accrued 100,000€ of personal debts and then left to live in another country leaving his wife and children with nothing at all, no house to live in or any assets or income. This man has now reinvented himself and built another life with a new partner and says he is ‘a better’ man now despite not quitting drinking. Close family know about the actions of this man and are aware that he is still not supporting his wife and has applied for a divorce having now cut off all communications with her. However these people continue to support him and call him their friend, invite him to stay with his new partner at their house etc.
    (I am the wife)
    Thank you.

  • Suzana

    Hi, Drew.
    Your article made me very happy. That’s because what it takes to have things right is not being lazy neither coward.
    Here in Brazil people are naturally discouraged. They believe it is useless to take action, because things won’t change. They are fatalistic.
    I am writing for 3 reasons: to practice my English, to cheer you, to warn you that Paulo Freire is a fraud.
    Of course who am I to tell you that. I just came out from a meeting whit a teacher.
    I thought: Maybe if I search in English I can find someone who could explain how harm Freire’s ideas had caused.
    Well, in order to find truth, one must be willing to give up rooted beliefs.

  • Ioudom Foubi Jephte

    good morning, the article is interesting. my friends critisize me for being neutral in all situations, even in conflict. Please what steps should i take to stop being neutral

  • Linda Vogt Turner

    I think when you choose sides you create divisions and prevent dialogue and discussion. The side taker wants to quell the opposition and to marshal people to their side to win a victory. For instance, in a domestic dispute between a husband and wife both parties should be encouraged to talk it out. If the wife or husband has more economic power, the person with the least economic power can and often does find ways to get a discussion going to end any disparity. If they can’t work things out, they can leave the marriage. However, this problem to resolve conflicts justly and fairly, usually follows them to the next marriage or to the workplace. In the case of activism…public protests can get discussions started between all stakeholders. If the intent of protests and activism is to topple the government, I think I would stay neutral and do what I could to get both sides talking and looking for ways to resolve the conflict. In the case of protesting an unjust law, I can see breaking that law in protest and spending time in jail. This action brings attention to a particular injustice. In some countries this action may not be tolerated and such protests could be seen as an unjust action on the part of the citizen. So people in democracies where such action is tolerated speak out and join with the foreign civil disobedient to weaken the power of a neighbour state. I think this kind of activism threatens world peace and prevents dialogue with mutual respect for the values of other sovereign nation states. I think we need activism that resists taking sides and promotes dialogue and co-operation between stakeholders.

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