The word “complicit” has become one of the ubiquitous vagaries hurled at people to shame them for not dedicating themselves to whatever trendy cause is at stake. Sure, you’re not a white supremacist, but if you’re not punching a Nazi, then you’re “complicit.”
The other day, Elie Mystal twitted that any lawyer who would take a job with the DoJ is “complicit.” In an op-ed complaining that Kozinski hasn’t suffered enough, and his victims who stood mute for decades have yet to be validated, lawprof Leah Litman blames the “complicit.”
Sexual harassment often persists because third parties are silently complicit in it. #MeToo requires some retrospection from people who are not harassers themselves.
Litman notably adds the word “third” before parties, as she would otherwise be speaking of herself, having alleged, after others took the risk by coming forward, that she too was made to feel uncomfortable by Koz yet neither said nor did anything. She was complicit in her silence, but there are built-in excuses to make that taint appear to go away. Others, which could range from Justice Kennedy to Judge Kavanagh, from David Lat to, well, everyone who’s ever known Koz, have no excuse for being “complicit.”
The claim of being “complicit,” is merely the nouvelle assertion of an old saw:
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
If catchy platitudes rule your world, you can stop reading here. If not, then recognize that the shaming mechanism of being called “complicit” is no more valid than is this platitude. No one is obligated to die on someone else’s hill. If you do something affirmatively wrong, you are responsible for what you do. But your failure, in the eyes of someone who really wants others to dedicate their lives to their cause, to be the ally they desperately want, and demand, you be only makes you one thing: not them.
We all have our own values, our own causes. We cannot spend our lives dedicated to every cause we agree with. Do you hate Trump? Then how can you not be part of the #Resistance? And if you’re not part of the #Resistance, dutifully signing petitions, twitting hashtag laden predictions of imminent impeachment and calling out Trump’s every burp, then you must be a Trumpkin, because you’re, wait for it, complicit.
We allocate scarce resources, our time, our attention, our money, to the causes that matter most to us. Almost invariably, it’s a cause that touches our lives or the lives of our loved ones. A cynical characterization is that we do so for enlightened self-interest. It’s good for us. It serves our personal needs. But a more generous explanation is that we do so because we are more finely attuned to the problem because we’re in it up to our eyeballs. Others may not be so finely attuned. Others still may not share our sensitivities toward it.
But others have their own issues, their problems, and while we may look at them and mutter, “you’re complicit,” they’re muttering the same at us. And we’re both right and wrong. We can rationalize our position because we believe our cause is more important, our problems worse, our needs more dire, but the fact is that the cause most in need of attention is the one that affects us. The rest is just our human way of justifying what we do, and why others are awful for not being just like us.
There is this guy, Sandy, who survived prostate cancer and runs a car show every year, the proceeds of which go toward prostate cancer research. He’s a nice enough guy, even though I hate his car show and don’t attend. Yet, he appears at every cruise night, every car show, with flyers in hand, which he dumps in every car possible. Over and over. I don’t care for people throwing their papers into my car. I appreciate what he’s doing for his cause, but after the first hundred flyers, enough already.
One night, as I was sitting next to my ’64 Healey, Sandy came around and tossed a flyer into the front seat. I told him that I don’t put my crap in his car, and he shouldn’t dump his in mine. We got into an argument, and Sandy yelled at me, “don’t you care about people dying from prostate cancer?” This is a disingenuous question. I do, when asked, but I don’t when it comes to allocation of resources. I have my causes. Doesn’t Sandy care about mine? Why does Sandy hate my causes?!?
But Sandy doesn’t hate mine, any more than I don’t care about his. Neither of us is complicit by not adopting someone else’s cause as our own. And I will not be shamed by accusation that if I’m not with him, I’m against him. It’s a false dichotomy, just as it is with Elie and LItman and every other scold who seeks to shame the insipid into doing their bidding or being the horrible person they hate.
There is nothing wrong with trying to persuade others to come to your aid, to see your point of view, to appreciate the feelings you have, the sensitivities that take something benign to rational people and morph them into literally Hitler in your squinty eyes. Persuade all you want; we’ll make more.
But shaming people upon threat of shrieking that they’re racist, sexist, Trump-lovers or prostate cancer apologists is a scam. Just because they have other concerns, and have valued their concerns over yours, doesn’t make them your enemy, any more than it makes you theirs. Each of us gets to pick our battles, decide which hill we want to die on, and there’s a good chance it’s not yours. There is nothing wrong with this.
Let them call you “complicit” all they want, but whenever that word pops up, know that the person hurling it is merely testing to see whether you’re shallow enough to be manipulated.