My permission for indifference is over. Until recently, I held the view that people had the right to remain separate from society’s inequalities. As long as they weren’t directly causing harm to others, it was their choice to stay out of issues that didn’t affect them. ‘Live and let live’, I thought. However, my perception of society has changed a great deal in the past three years. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that ‘staying out of politics’ was not a neutral position.
These questions about indifference emerged through my work with equality, diversity and inclusion survey data. In well-designed online surveys when a respondent is invited to express an opinion they will also have the option to select ‘Prefer not to say’ or skip the question entirely.
For example, take the question ‘How welcoming is your workplace to staff of different religions and beliefs?’ on a scale from ‘Extremely welcoming’ to ‘Not at all welcoming’. In response to this question, what motivates someone to select ‘Prefer not to say’ or skip the question altogether?
On one hand, the respondent should have the agency to choose the questions within a survey they wish to answer. On the other hand, why would someone not have an opinion on whether or not their workplace is welcoming and what is meant by not having an opinion (or at least not wanting to share your opinion)?
Being indifferent is only possible when one is in a position of privilege.
The question of the ‘non-respondent’ has intrigued me. Is it related to a person’s confidence in their own knowledge and perception of a situation, are they genuinely not interested or are they simply looking to complete the question as quickly as possible (although selecting ‘Prefer not to say’ arguably takes as long as selecting a response).
Being indifferent is only possible when one is in a position of privilege — if you do not need to say something, you are safe, while others are not. A gay teacher cannot choose to not have an opinion as people protest outside his school against a curriculum that acknowledges his existence. A woman in a wheelchair cannot remain indifferent when she is stuck outside in the rain because the meeting venue is inaccessible.
The practice of EDI work within institutions is a political act. It involves picking a team and fighting their corner. This is tough when you share the identity characteristics of the team you’re fighting with but even tougher when you’re fighting as an ally. Behind this lies a recognition that progress is not achieved unless we all go together. Nobody is left behind.
I am tired of excuses. For anyone engaged in EDI work, they will have heard the following:
‘I can’t speak-out, it might impact my career’.
‘Someone in my position should keep their head down’.
‘I don’t have time for politics’.
My interest in indifference is not particularly about whether someone voted ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ in the European Union referendum or will vote SNP or Labour in the next election. Although these positions are unquestionably intertwined with broader world views, they come with the baggage of party politics. In comparison, challenging racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, discrimination and hate are not partisan activities. They are acts of human decency. If someone agrees that we do not currently live in a society that is truly equal, diverse nor inclusive then why would they choose to do nothing to help fix this problem?
If not you, then who? It is the responsibility of those with capital — whether it’s economic, social or intellectual — to use their power to help others. To not hold an opinion is to take a side. Silence is a tacit acceptance of the status quo.
Dr Kevin Guyan is based in Edinburgh and works as an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher. He is writing in a personal capacity.