The Current

'Willful ignorance cannot be an excuse': How to navigate complicity

Chiara Lepora, co-author of On Complicity and Compromise, argues that in certain situations, "a non-action is as morally active as a real action."
B.C. Transit Police have arrested and charged a man with assault and threatening after a woman wearing a hijab says she was verbally abused and struck while on SkyTrain. (Richard Lam/Canadian Press )

Story transcript

When 18-year-old Noor Fadel was heading home from work on Monday night, she encountered an angry man on B.C.'s Skytrain spewing threats.

Fadel, who is Muslim, said the 46-year-old man yelled repeatedly that he was going to kill her before trying to grab her hijab and force her head into his crotch.

Fodel estimated there were more than 25 other people aboard the train car. "I looked at these other passengers on the train, and everyone was just staring," she said.

When Fadel was struck across the face, a fellow passenger, Jake Taylor, stepped in. He stood between Fadel and the attacker until the man got off at the next station. 

Noor Fadel standing with Jake Taylor, the only passenger to intervene and help her in an attack on a B.C. SkyTrain, Dec. 4. (Clare Hennig/CBC )

None of the passengers intervened until the man hit Fadel. Were they afraid for their own safety, or were they complicit in the confrontation beforehand?

The Skytrain incident is one of several cases Chiara Lepora looks at in On Complicity and Compromise, co-authored by Robert E. Goodin.

"Most people somewhat have the idea that doing nothing cannot be wrong. And so they think: 'If I act, maybe there can be negative consequences,'" she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"If I just don't do anything then I will not be complicit. I will not take part in anything that does not concern me," she explained.

But Lepora suggests this frame of thought is wrong, and that "a non-action is as morally active as a real action."

To her, bystanders who watch something fundamentally wrong happening without intervening are "connivers." By choosing to remain spectators, they are in some way accepting and condoning the wrongdoing.

"But more than anything they are not taking an active part that is their human duty to take: to protect somebody who is in a vulnerable position," Lepora argued.

"So they can be considered as complicit, in so far as doing something different from what they've done would have avoided the wrong from happening."

'Willful ignorance cannot be an excuse'

Lepora told Tremonti that a fundamental condition to understanding if someone is complicit comes down to "the notion of the fact that they could and should have known."

In other words: "Willful ignorance cannot be an excuse."

That willful ignorance, she says, is something we are all at risk to fall into sometimes, because "we are not necessarily, personally touched by an abuse."

Chiara Lepora, co-author of On Complicity and Compromise, says 'willful ignorance cannot be an excuse' when the opportunity to help others in need arises. (Chiara Lepora)

"It makes our life easier not to see it rather than to see it and then decide whether we should do something or not."

Lepora says it's important to think about the direct consequences of our action and also the indirect one, adding that the person must consider how their actions will contribute to the action of someone else.

"In our society where everyone is so interlinked ... we do have a cumulative effect."

Tipping point?

There's been a spike in online searches for the meaning of complicity as of late given the recent climate of sexual harassment allegations flooding the public sphere — from Hollywood celebrities to politicians. 

It may seem that elements of our society have reached a watershed moment, in light of the aftermath (and continuing fallout) of some of the most high-profile cases, such as the disgrace of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, or most recently the resignation of U.S. Senator Al Franken.

Nepalese villagers look on as they watch a helicopter picking up a medical team, dropping aid at the edge of a makeshift landing zone in May 2015 in the village of Gumda. Lepora is also a doctor in humanitarian medicine, currently working for the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Daniel Berehulak)

But Lepora doesn't see it that way. She says people aren't asking themselves the right questions. 

"I do still see a lot of emphasis on shame and punishment of a few individuals — possibly the most famous ones — but not really an attitude for which we take collective responsibility of an environment that allowed and nurtured abuse and harassment to become systemic in so many different fields of our lives," she said.

So what question should you ask yourself? Lepora suggests:

"Is my attitude in any way — active or by omission — also having some direct consequences on other people doing wrongs around me?"

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Susan Ferreira.