When Silence and Neutrality Become Evil

Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, disliked, even despised, for moral reasons, the words “silence” and “neutrality.” The reason was that they resulted in the death of millions of human beings in the Holocaust. Many people did not want to get involved in stopping the Nazis from killing the Jewish people. For Wiesel, silence (not saying anything about those who commit unjust acts) and neutrality (not doing anything to stops such acts) are passive forms of evil. As he declared at his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize,

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Thus, for Wiesel, choosing not to take a side is a moral act, which is taking a side against taking a side. Silence and neutrality are passive forms of acting. That is to say, those who choose to be silent and neutral are acting by not taking any action against injustice, They are, then, choosing to do something by not doing anything. For the same reasons, the decision not to get involved is an act and, therefore, non-involvement is a form of involvement.

For Wiesel, there are evil acts by commission and omission. Evil by commission is actually and directly carrying out an act, say, killing an innocent person. Evil by omission is actually and indirectly participating in the act of the aggressor by neither saying nor doing anything to stop it. That is why Wiesel urges his audience to say or do something about evil, when it is within their power to act. Therefore, he says,

“Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”