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When one is complicit, this is involvement with others in an illegal, unethical or immoral activity or wrongdoing. Being complicit includes being a bystander who contributes to a negative outcome by taking a passive stance in the face of injustice.

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Someone cautioned me recently that I would offend people because I brought up toxic masculinity and that I should not say that phrase in front of others. This person said, “most men are not toxic.” I happen to agree. And I was angry. This is the same reaction people give to those who raise topics of racism, white privilege, sexism, homophobia, or even shame. This attitude blocks conversations needed to disrupt the status quo. Here are some examples:

  • People asking researcher, author, and speaker Brene Brown to avoid speaking about shame, because ‘it’s kind of dark and makes people uncomfortable’Like me, she makes this her #1 platform.
  • People objecting to mention of systemic racism because it offends those not direct perpetrators. Note: after 120 years, an anti-lynching law finally passed just last month after 240 such bills failed, some as recently as in 2018 and 2020. In this way, is it possible we’ve all been perpetrating harm?
  • People objecting to speaking about white privilege because they say it’s unfair to those who are not abusing their privilege. Why is privilege even a thing and why do we turn a blind eye to it and tolerate it?
  • People objecting to speaking about toxic masculinity because somehow, it might insult men (or women) who are not themselves abusing power. How can we help without acknowledging this real issue?

I’m sure there are many other examples. To raise these and other issues is not male-bashing or white-bashing, or any other kind of bashing. To make feelings of some more important than opening our eyes as a community, as a workplace, as a world to what’s happening, is a form of complicity. Politeness and avoidance of discussion is at the core of why such issues drag on, rear up stronger than ever, and repeatedly fail to heal or change, over centuries.

There is no neutral. We all have a part in this. And while these topics are broad social ones, they also impact your workplace. The failure to speak in ways needed to change the status quo costs every one of us in untold, uncounted ways. Thank goodness psychological safety, emotional intelligence, trauma-informed, and diversity, equity and inclusion are just some of the important discussions happening today in the best workplaces so that healing has at times begun.

In one of my favorite TED talks by Jackson Katz on Violence Against Women; It’s a Man’s Issue he talks about a LOT of really important things, including the role of the bystander. A bystander is any of us who are not directly perpetrating harm against others or wanting to (e.g., any ism on gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) nor are we the victims. This does not leave bystanders without culpability.

Together, all of us are responsible for either speaking up or remaining silent. We must develop the courage to be disliked at times and get past toxic politeness that is rampant and obscene. Just because we are not perpetrators or victims, does not justify putting our heads in the sand and not taking responsibility for what we can do because it makes some people uncomfortable, angry, or annoyed. This is like the Russian people unable to say the word “war” or acknowledge what Putin is doing to Ukraine.

Dr. King also said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it, is really cooperating with it.

I continue to wake up about this in myself. In a firm and respectful way, I choose to rock the boat. I invite you to examine your own heart and actions to determine if you are complicit in playing it safe, dismissing the need to speak up on essential matters, all to maintain the status quo, while allowing life to leak from yourself or others. Now is the time to get real because it takes all of us to fix the problems impacting our world today. We all can do something. Let’s trade in complicity and complacency with talk, so we understand and then help instead.

This article is published in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, in the column The Extraordinary Workplace, May 2022.

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