In many tricky and polarised socio-political situations, it is not uncommon to see a considerable number of people choosing to retreat stealthily into the background and hide behind one pretext or the other. Apparently, for fear of annoying and / or losing one or both opposing parties, they don’t want to be seen siding with either of the two parties. In doing so, contrary to their hollow noble claims, they don’t end up bringing the two opposing parties together; they help to create a third division – a third front – a front comprising floaters and fence-sitters.
In his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, English-American author, Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), says the essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks but in how it thinks. In contrast, however, American writer, Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) say, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Coming back to the topic, why do some people choose to remain neutral and sit on fence in situations where their opinions and proactive role seriously matter for deciding the outcome of those situations? Don’t these floaters have opinions? This question may not have one but several answers. On the surface of it, the fence-sitters and floaters may look completely innocent and well-intentioned but once you scratch the surface, you may discover a wide range of reasons underlying their thinking and behaviour, all of which can be deemed irresponsible at best.
Note that none of us has the wisdom of Solomon to completely crack the puzzle why people choose to be neutral, or the special powers of Apollo (who is believed to have the ability to see into the future and power over light, as well as also heal people or bring illness and disease to them) to bring them back into one side or the other.
Within all the aforementioned constraints and limitations of the human thought, therefore, let us try to analyse the possible reasons. The actual reasons or the combinations thereof may, however, depend on the basic nature of an individual or a community.
(1) Lack of opinions. While some of these floaters and fence-sitters may be too unfortunate and dim-witted to have opinions on matters of common interest and / or the ability to think intelligently, most of them are actually strongly opinionated, and mischievously conniving to an extent, if engaged personally on a one-to-one basis. Normally, in public, they pretend to reflect a more neutral position – sitting on a high moral pedestal, talk statesmanlike and pretend to be detached from the mundane world, which are all practically rubbish, impractical and rather Utopian. Such people may usually be seen making passing remarks about other people, terming them too opinionated, which exposes them only. Logically, thinking about it, it only takes an opinionated person to know and recognise another opinionated person. A person without opinions can’t even think, let alone comment.
(2) Tendency to keep everyone happy: Individuals who try to please everybody end up pleasing no one. They are branded plainly as selfish and self-centered. For them social life is a pastime. They lack active citizenship.
(3) Psychological impotence: Lessons from the Mahabharata come handy to understand this factor. The wisdom, bravery and invincibility of those stalwarts in the Mahabharata, who directly or indirectly sided with the Kaurvas – for reasons of blind allegiance, imprudence or selfish myopia – in reality stood against the Dharma, against God. Their ultimate plight should be a lesson to all.
(4) Enjoy both worlds: This mentality of the past has led to the current plight of Malaysian Indians. In the late 60s, before Singapore was born as an independent country, anecdotally, both Malaysian Chinese and Malay communities expected support from the Indian community in their power struggle. It is said, for its own reasons, the Indian community chose to remain neutral. Their past neutrality, interpreted by both Malays and Chinese communities as unfriendliness and untrustworthiness, has bedded deep in the psyche of both Malays and Chinese communities.
(5) Careless myopia: The irresponsible mindset of many people from the Indian subcontinent – ‘mainu key’ and ‘khao piyo moj karo’ – as discussed in depth in two of my books on India, is one the main reasons underlying India’s socio-economic strata. This mindset defines the opportunistic and selfish characteristics of many people, who are actually nobody’s friends except themselves. Their outward friendliness is cleverly designed only to exploit the good intent of others for reaping their own benefits but only to a point beyond which, when they get exposed, they turn cold and unfriendly. In the longer run, as per Nature’s law and justice, they end up sabotaging themselves; people end up distrusting and distancing them.
In conclusion, by staying neutral, people tend to cause much more harm than good to the community they claim to care about. They indirectly strengthen the wrong side of the equation: “If you are not with me, you are against me.” This simple algebraic equation needs no greater explanation. With their superficial neutrality, they encourage and promote bad things in the world.
It would be appropriate to end this article with a number of pertinent quotes:
- World is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing. (Albert Einstein)
- All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. (Thomas Jefferson)
- He who does not oppose evil, commands it to be done. (Leonardo Da Vinci)
- What you allow, you encourage (Carrie Heinze-Musgrove)
- Your silence is consent. (Plato)
- If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. (Desmond Tutu)
- Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor. (Ginette Sagan)
- Standing up to bullies is the hallmark of a civilized society. (Robert Reich)
- I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever humans endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. (Elie Wiesel)
- There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest it. (Elie Wiesel)
- You think that your silence on certain topics, perhaps in the face of injustice, or unkindness, or mean-spiritedness, causes others to reserve judgement of you. Far otherwise; your silence utters very loud: you have no oracle to speak, no wisdom to offer, and your fellow people have learned that you cannot help them. Doth not wisdom cry, and understanding put forth her voice? We would be well to do likewise. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. (Martin Luther King Jr)
- Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. (Martin Luther King Jr)
- In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. (Martin Luther King Jr)
- There are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
- I chose to defend human rights because I cannot maintain my silence in the face of injustice. (Chen Guangcheng)
- Real love cannot be silent in the face of injustice. (Mel White)
- I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody. (Lily Tomlin)
- Do not tolerate brilliant jerks, the cost to teamwork is too high. (Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO)
- It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to allow the abuse of one. (Unknown)
- It is precisely because of my love for humanity that I get enraged at systems that prevent people from flourishing and being free. It’s frustrating to see my righteous anger at unjust systems misinterpreted as hatred for individuals, but it’s more frustrating to see the oppressed suffer while those maladjusted to injustice remain silent. I won’t be silent. Silence is violence. (Nyle Fort)
- First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out for I was not a socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out for I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out for I was not a not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. (Martin Niemöller)
… Bill Koul (28 March 2020)