“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This quote of South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu has been everywhere on social media as of late. Well, at least on my social media feeds. I highly doubt my grandparents in Tennessee have come across it, unless Edith from church woke up this morning and decided to drastically stray from her usual posting habits of Bible quotes and cat photos.
The injustice my Facebook friends are referring to is presumably the newly-minted presidency of Donald Trump, and more specifically Trump’s recent executive order which severely restricts immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the United States. I believe this action is deplorable and a disgrace to our country, but I’m sure you’ve heard enough people’s opinion on the matter already so I’ll spare both of us the time. Instead, I’m much more interested in this concept of neutrality in situations of injustice and how it applies to myself and those around me over the next four years.
The first time I saw this quote I immediately recalled an experience I had while canvasing for the Hillary Clinton campaign last semester. My friend and I were going around neighborhoods knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets, not attempting to convince people to vote for Hillary Clinton but instead providing information on voting locations for those who had been identified by the Democratic Party as likely to vote for her in the upcoming election. Most of the people we talked to were pleasant and kind and enthusiastically confirmed that they were planning to vote for Hillary or already had through early voting. We came across a few hostile individuals—one even threatened to call the police on us—but that didn’t really bother me all that much. There’s no point in getting too worked up over someone whose mind you’re never going to change.
One encounter, however, did bother me. It was towards the end of our route and by that time we had our routine down to a T. We rang the doorbell and a middle aged women opened the door. I greeted her with the scripted statement the Democratic Party had told us to use (I’m paraphrasing here): “Good afternoon ma’am, we’re with the North Carolina Democratic Party and we were wondering if you know where your nearest polling location is.” I had heard a plethora of different answers to this seemingly simple question throughout the course of the day, but what this woman said next surprised me. “I don’t vote. If I did I would vote for Hillary, but I don’t vote.”
It wasn’t our job to change anyone’s mind, so my friend began to say goodbye, but my curiosity got the best of me: “If you don’t mind my asking, why don’t you vote?” She explained that she was a Jehovah’s Witness and that Jehovah’s Witnesses remain politically neutral. This wasn’t something I was aware of, but I looked it up later and found that it’s indeed true. Now, maybe this is my cynicism towards organized religion talking, but that is the most absurd rule I’ve ever heard. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses not members of society like everyone else? How could someone throw away this right so central to the notion of our democracy? How could they just sit on the sideline and watch as perhaps the most important election of our time was decided?
In my mind, by staying neutral this woman had chosen the side of the oppressor. But am I really any better than she is? Sure, I voted and spent one day canvasing, but what do I really do to stand up for what I believe in? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in light of the women’s marches and other protests against the Trump administration. In particular, the situation surrounding Uber poses a tricky philosophical dilemma for me.
Over the weekend, protests against Trump’s “Muslim Ban” took place at JFK airport and in solidarity with the protesters New York taxi drivers refused to pick up passengers from JFK while the protest was taking place. Uber, however, did not participate in the protest and in fact allowed surge pricing to go into effect, prompting many Trump critics to take to social media with the hashtag #DeleteUber. It doesn’t help that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick serves on Trump’s business advisory board. In Uber’s defense, Kalanick has called the ban “wrong and unjust” and has pledged to create a $3 million defense fund for Uber drivers affected by the ban.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this issue and if Uber is a company worthy of my disapproval. To me it seems a little bit extreme to cut ties with Uber entirely because of one instance, and if I were to only patronize companies without high-ranking Trump supporters my options would be very limited. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that the second I saw the hashtag, my first thought was “No way in hell I’m deleting Uber.” What does that say about me as a political activist? Would I rather desert what I believe in than have to take Lyfts for the rest of my life?
So while at this point in time I won’t be deleting Uber because I think to do so would be an overreaction, I should be willing to in the future if I deem it the morally correct thing to do. To be politically active means to forfeit comfort and convenience now and again in pursuit of what you deem best for the greater good. Neutrality is not an option. And if that means I have to walk my way around Durham, then so be it, because no way in hell I’m taking a Lyft.
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