Institutions as Bystanders

Much has been said about the negative impact individuals have when they are bystanders – when they remain silent in the face of hate.

As Elie Wiesel eloquently described, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Being a bystander is not being neutral – it is being complicit.

Much education and advocacy has gone into helping individuals realize the wrongness of being a bystander. Much education and advocacy has gone into giving individuals the tools to speak up and to take action. Much education and advocacy has focused on the role of individuals in countering injustice.

But what of the role of institutions?

Institutional racism and other forms of discrimination are, after all, institutional. But what is the role of an institution is speaking out and acting against injustice?

The question, in part, may depend on the type of institution – does a corporation have the same responsibility as a school?

Probably not – a school has a responsibility to educate, while a corporation has a responsibly, I suppose, to profit.

It’s not that you would never see this issues addressed in the corporate sector, but you would really only expect a brand to speak up on an issue under a certain set of conditions.

Most notably, if a bias incident at a company makes big news, that would certainly force a crisis-communications response. But if that’s the only time an institution reacts – I’m not sure that’s any different from being a bystander.

Companies may arguably also take a stand through their editorial decisions. After all, it seems we are not past the days when an advertisement featuring an interracial couple or a gay couple counts as a political statement.

But this is rather light support. A general a nod to inclusivity, without the teeth that real activism requires. As one of my grad school professors described it, its often done as an attempt to reach out to a target demographic while not offending another target demographic.

That still sounds like a bystander.

And perhaps this is all well and good for corporations – which do have an obligation to make a profit – or perhaps we should ask for more. Perhaps instead of boycotting company’s whose stances we disagree with, we should boycott companies who think they can take no stance at all.

And perhaps we should push other types of institutions – schools, cities, associations. These institutions which do have a social mission, which do have a duty to the public and not just to stockholders. Perhaps we should push all institutions to take a stand and speak out against bias.

Perhaps being neutral should not be an option.


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