Being complicit

It has taken me longer than expected to write this post.

The subject material is somewhat taboo and I wanted to ensure that my writing accurately expresses my views on the issue.

It is also personal and brings into the open an exploration of power and privilege, the limitations of ‘being reflexive’ and, most alarmingly, the benefits we all enjoy – at different times and in different contexts – because of the disadvantage of others.

The word complicit, meaning involvement with others in an unlawful or morally wrong activity, derives from the Latin ‘to fold together’. Being complicit is when your identity characteristics – such as gender, race, sexual orientation, language or social class – enable you to capitalise on a structure.

I want to write about being complicit rather than privilege to foreground the participative nature, direct or indirect, of reaping the benefits of your identity characteristics. And although the folding together of good people and bad structures cuts across many threads in equality, diversity and inclusion work, being complicit generally remains a topic undiscussed.

The benefits we all enjoy – at different times and in different contexts – because of the disadvantage of others.

Yet, the theme has been explored by some scholars. For example, sociologist Raewyn Connell wrote about the concept of the patriarchal dividend, which argues that all men, to varying degrees, benefit from their masculinity. Operating in a patriarchal system enables men, particularly adherents of hegemonic masculinity, to accrue unearned social and political capital.

The same argument can apply across other identity characteristics:

Being white in a white supremacist society.

Being non-disabled in an ableist society.

Being heterosexual in a heteronormative society.

The situation is often more complex in everyday life. Attempts to draw causal links between A, B and C are messy. Likewise, people do not exist as monolithic identities nor do they operate in spaces where they are always advantaged or disadvantaged. Life is messy and multi-layered and overlapping, where people exist as individuals with unique characters and histories.

But this all takes place within structures – whether they are social, cultural, economic or political – that were historically designed to benefit some at the expense of others.

It is always possible for some people to work harder than others in these structures and attribute their success to meritocracy. But getting there by merit will always be harder when the system is designed to limit your success.

‘Am I happy to reap the benefits of a crime yet not serve the time?’

Taking a step back from the abstract – how should EDI practitioners respond to these challenges, particularly if they find themselves implicated in the problem?

An EDI practitioner might experience a sour taste in their mouth as they come to realise how they have personally benefitted from an unfair system. ‘Am I happy to reap the benefits of a crime yet not serve the time?’

One possible approach is to reframe discussion in terms of an inequality dividend. This flips on its head the more common (and more palatable) concept of an equality dividend. Very simply this means that initiatives to improve EDI for some people within an institution in fact benefit everyone. For example, flexible working policies can specifically improve the life/work balance of employees with caring responsibilities. However, it might also improve the life/work balance of employees without caring responsibilities.

Everyone wins!

Which is ideal when institutions are looking for ways to justify their EDI work (beyond simply doing the right thing).

Yet, belief in an equality dividend relies on an assumption that EDI is not a zero-sum game.

The metaphorical pie increases in size allowing everyone the opportunity to enjoy more rather than putting in place redistributive measures so that some people receive more and some people receive less.

Discussions around being complicit and the inequality dividend are difficult. What I present here raises more questions than answers and is intended as an outline of issues and responses, rather than anything conclusive. Informal writing on EDI might help us think beyond what is currently being discussed and creatively explore ways to combat inequalities.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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