Why Professionals Need to Speak Up About Injustices

Ray Williams
16 min readJan 22, 2024

A pressing question emerges in the dynamic social and professional discourse landscape: should professionals and academics vocalize their perspectives on societal injustices? This article emphatically answers, “Yes!” Far too many in these fields maintain a disquieting silence in the face of clear wrongdoings. As I have observed and personally experienced, voicing your stand on social issues like war, climate change, income inequality, and toxic masculinity, particularly on platforms like LinkedIn, evokes a mix of criticism and support. But the importance of “speaking truth to power” cannot be overstated. Silence, especially in the face of injustice, is not just morally questionable; it’s a relinquishment of responsibility.

The role of professionals and academics is at a crossroads. Staying silent or limiting their voice to their specific field risks losing relevance and public trust. My article, “The War on Expertise and Anti-Intellectualism in America,” underscores this dilemma. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare a critical flaw in American democracy: a growing disdain for expertise and a rampant anti-intellectualism. This phenomenon is not new but has deep roots in American culture, setting it apart from other Western nations.

How Professionals Are Losing Their Relevance

Professionals and academics lose their relevance if they believe their voice should be restricted only to the field or endeavour in which they work rather than speaking out on key social issues and participating in policy debates. As it is, they are experiencing a backlash from the general public, who are losing confidence in professionals and academics.

In Presidential press conferences, major news outlets’ shows, and articles both in mainstream media and social media, the conclusions and perspectives of scientific experts on issues related to COVID-10 are not only challenged by commentators that have no scientific expertise, nor can they provide any evidence for their claims. Worse, an argumentative equivalency is often presented to viewers and readers to show that opinions (often uninformed) are equal to and as important as expert views backed by scientific evidence. This anti-expert, anti-intellectualism has a long history in America, which makes it different than other Western countries.”

According to a recent 2017 Pew Survey, 58% of American Republicans believe universities and colleges negatively affect the country — a 21% increase since 2015. This concurrent growing mistrust of education goes hand in hand with mistrust of experts, as universities are assumed to be staffed with expert professors and are seen as the site where experts are created through education. However, changes in education over the last generation have led many to question whether universities are positive, whether they create experts, and whether the experts at universities can be trusted.

As Pew noted, “this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP. The poll found that positive views of colleges among Republicans under 50 sunk by 21 percentage points from 2015 to 2019. While Republican views of colleges and universities remained largely the same throughout much of the Obama administration, 65 percent of self-identified conservatives now say that colleges and universities hurt the country. Positive views of colleges dropped even among Republicans with a college or graduate degree, declining by 11 percentage points during the last two years.

Andrew J. Hoffman, of the University of Michigan, in his article in The Conversation cites a Pew Research Center study which reports, “87 percent of scientists accept that natural selection plays a role in evolution, 32 percent of the public agree; 88 percent of scientists think that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, 37 percent of the public agree; 87 percent of scientists think that climate change is mostly due to human activity, only 50 percent of the public agree.”

Hoffman says this should be a cause for concern: “In our increasingly technological world, issues like nanotechnology, stem cell research, nuclear power, climate change, vaccines and autism, genetically modified organisms, gun control, health care and disruption require thoughtful and informed debate. But instead, these and other issues have often been caught up in the so-called culture wars. For that reason, surveys find that many academics do not see it as their role to be “an enabler of direct public participation in decision-making through formats such as deliberative meetings and do not believe there are personal benefits to investing in these activities. As a result, we focus inward on our research communities and remain disconnected from important public and political debates around us.”

The Decline of Democracies

The fabric of democracy is fraying. Across the globe, the governance landscape is shifting alarmingly away from democratic ideals. A sobering reality emerges from various global indices: the number of nations classified as fully democratic has plummeted in the last two decades. This decline isn’t just a statistical anomaly; it’s a trend that continues to deepen. This trend shows no signs of abating. Some reports say that more countries became more authoritarian in 2022 than in any year since 1990. If the decline of democracy continues at the present pace, less than 5% of the world’s population will live in a full democracy by 2026.

The implications of this shift extend beyond national borders. Autocratic regimes are more prone to stoking conflicts, propagating disinformation, and launching cross-border cyber assaults. These actions don’t just undermine international relations; they pose a direct threat to the very essence of democratic existence. In this context, the call to speak up against injustice isn’t just a moral duty; it’s a crucial defence in safeguarding democratic values and ensuring that the voices of freedom and justice resonate in an ever-changing world.

The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological theory that states that individuals are less likely to help a victim in the presence of other people. If a single individual is asked to complete the task alone, the sense of responsibility will be strong, and there will be a positive response; however, if a group is required to complete the task together, each individual in the group will have a weak sense of responsibility, and will often shrink back in the face of difficulties or responsibilities.

As Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, says: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes, we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”

After WWII many ordinary Germans and Europeans claimed that they were “not involved” — essentially, they were “bystanders.” However, refusing to take any responsibility for what happened obscures the reality of the involvement of people at all levels of German society and beyond. Many onlookers to events who approved or tolerated what they witnessed were also involved.

Martin Niemöller, a prominent German Lutheran pastor in the 1920s and 1930s, encapsulated the concept when he wrote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Jared Keyel, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a scholar of war and displacement, writing in Common Dreams, argues that silence is complicity, referring to the thousands of civilians — mostly women and children — who have been killed by Israeli bombing in Gaza.

On January 5, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths stated that “Gaza has simply become uninhabitable. Its people are witnessing daily threats to their very existence — while the world watches on.” This cannot be dismissed as “what happens in war.”

And let us not forget that it is the Democratic Biden administration that has provided the bombs and weapons that have killed so many civilians in Gaza.

Speaking Up Against Authoritarianism

In my article The Rise of American Authoritarianism, I describe how rising authoritarianism and eroding democracy in America are a clear and present danger to democracy that will affect the entire world and the need for people to speak up about it. I argue, “There are disturbing signs that America’s strength as a democracy has weakened because of significant support for authoritarianism and an autocratic President Donald Trump. And while we think of autocratic states and dictatorships developing as a result of a sudden and often violent revolution, they can evolve slowly, with the changes often either going without notice or not being serious enough for concerted citizen action.”

Matthew C. MacWilliams, founder of a political communications firm and author of On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History, published an extensive examination of authoritarianism in America and conducted four national panel surveys before the 2016 Presidential election. He found that “approximately 18 percent of Americans are highly disposed to authoritarianism, according to their answers to four simple survey questions used by social scientists to estimate this disposition. A further 23 percent are just one step below them on the authoritarian scale. This roughly 40 percent of Americans favor authority, obedience and uniformity over freedom, independence and diversity.”

A study used authoritarian researcher Bob Altemeyer’s definition and scoring system of right-wing authoritarianism, which defines it as a “desire to submit to some authority, aggression that is directed against whomever the authority says should be targeted and a desire to have everybody follow the norms and social conventions that the authority says should be followed.”

RWA index. Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) was measured using the RWA scale utilized in Monmouth’s research, and developed by Bob Altemeyer.

This results in the following proportions of respondents from each country that fall into the high or low categories.

Table 1. Percentage of respondents categorized as High or Low RWA, by country.

Political scientist David B. Hill of Hill Research Consultants conducted an online and telephone poll of 1,000 American voters. A series of 21 agree-or-disagree questions, which can be used to gauge support for or opposition to authoritarianism, was put to the respondents. The outcomes were then weighted to reflect national demographics. The statement “Once our leaders give us the go-ahead, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to assist in rooting out the decadence that is poisoning our country from within” was agreed upon by nearly half of the respondents (49 percent).

More than half (56%) agreed with the statement that “returning to our traditional values, installing a tough leader in office, and silencing the troublemakers disseminating radical views is the only way our country can get through the crisis ahead.”

Research conducted by Bright Line Watch, the group that organized the Yale conference on democracy, shows that Americans are not as committed to democracy as you might expect. Another startling finding is that many Americans are open to “alternatives” to democracy. In 1995, for example, one in 16 Americans supported Army rule; in 2016, that number increased to one in six. According to another survey cited at the Yale conference, 18 percent of Americans think a military-led government is a “fairly good” idea.

Remaking Partisan Politics through Authoritarian Sorting, a book by political scientists Christopher Federico, Stanley Feldman and Christopher Weber examines authoritarianism in America. The authors found that in 1992, sixty-two percent of white voters who ranked highest on the authoritarian scale supported George H.W. Bush. In 2016, 86 percent of the most authoritarian white voters backed Trump, an increase of 24 percent.

A poll by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life found that nearly 40 percent of Republicans agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”

The Public Religion Research Institute found that 30 percent of Republicans agreed that “Because things have gotten so far off-track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.”

As matters stand, Trump is on course to win a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination and a possible second White House term. And he has spoken publicly that he’ll use any means possible to ensure his win. He walked away when asked if he would discourage his followers from violence as he ended a press conference in Washington, DC, after attending a hearing at the District’s US Court of Appeals.

The bigger, worldwide picture is more alarming still. Far from being an exception to the rule, Trump reflects, amplifies and popularizes a regressive global trend towards authoritarian, totalitarian, dictatorial, nationalistic and religiously, ethnically and culturally majoritarian forms of right-wing governance.

Business Leaders Speak Up on Social Issues

Ipsos, a professional organization which employs 18,000 people and conducts research programs in more than 100 countries, published a report titled Navigating Social Issues: When and How to Speak Out. The key findings of the report were:

  • Three in ten people around the world trust business leaders to tell the truth, according to Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor.
  • Reliability, transparency, and behaving responsibly are the most significant drivers of trust in organizations globally.
  • Mobilizing stakeholders around an authentic, shared goal is critical to avoid the perception of empty promises and corporate purpose-washing.

In 2023, corporate leaders are finding that “taking a stand” on a range of issues is a high-stakes game. Choosing to stay silent on one issue or overstepping on another can trigger more than a negative media cycle, often resulting in heightened regulatory risk, sales loss and even market cap depreciation.

The Ipsos Reputation Council — an annual study of global communications and corporate affairs leaders exploring top issues and trends in reputation management — emphasized the clear demand for businesses to play a societal role beyond the management of the bottom line.

Deloitte’s 2018 study of global human capital trends, “The Rise of the Social Enterprise,” interviewed many CEOs and found them in a quandary about taking a position on social issues. Times have changed since then. Edelman’s current research found that 56% of consumers have no respect for CEOs who remain silent on social issues.

Similarly, a study by BrandFog and Susan McPherson, in their CEO Speak Out study, found that 64% of consumers say CEOs should take social-issue positions:

  • 93% of buyers agree that when CEOs speak out about social issues I agree with, I am likely to buy more from that company.
  • 82% believe that as an employee, it is important for me to know my CEO’s position on social issues like women’s reproductive rights, gun control, immigration policy, economic inequality, racial discrimination and LGBTQ rights.
  • 86% believe CEOs who defend people’s rights demonstrate great leadership.

As Edelman clearly states in its findings: “Building trust (69%) is now the №1 job for CEOs, surpassing producing high-quality products and services (68%).”

Taking a stand involves speaking out.

Paul A. Argenti, writing in Harvard Business Review about leaders speaking out on social issues, says, “Over the last four years, companies have been under pressure from their constituencies — employees, customers, investors, and the communities in which they operate — to take a public stand on high-profile political and social movements.”

A report by FTI Consulting, one of the largest business advisory firms in the world, concluded that companies are becoming polarized as opposing points of view clash. CEOs may find themselves in the middle, unsure how to engage in social issues or become bystanders saying nothing. It the FTI Consulting report, titled CEO Leadership Redefined, FTI found significant generational differences in whether people expect business leaders to take public stances on controversial social and political issues. “Many CEOs may not yet grasp that their under-40 employees likely expect them to address these issues head-on,” the report says. “In fact, half of both millennials and Democrats even go so far as to say that they would not work for a CEO with different political views.”

Speaking up is critical at the employee level in organizations in the presence of corruption, dishonesty and abuse. Tanya Finnie, Global Strategist argues, “Speak up culture” refers to a healthy, supportive environment, where team members feel free to share their ideas, opinions and concerns, without fear of retaliation or penalty. Often, people associate it with calling out toxic company culture or even an individual staff member. However, it can also refer to people feeling comfortable to express different ideas or business models that have previously gone unexplored.” It’s not enough to rely upon the once-in-a-while whistle-blower who is widely publicized. In a recent academic article in Organization Science, the researchers state, “Voice, or employees’ upward expression of challenging but constructive concerns or ideas on work-related issues, can play a critical role in improving organizational effectiveness.”

Moral Courage

We all see daily incidents and unjust, cruel, and destructive events in the news and social media. Having the moral courage to speak out can make a difference. Julia Sasse, professor for general psychology and media effects at the Applied University Ansbach and affiliated researcher at the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, argues in her article in the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center, “morally courageous individuals can become a protective force for individuals, a catalyst for social change, and an inspiration for others, thereby making a crucial contribution to the greater good. Against this backdrop, we hope for a society where many people show moral courage. Instead, however, moral courage is relatively rare. We can probably all recall reports of violent fights, sexual harassment, or racist attacks in which no one intervened, or perhaps we have found ourselves in such situations and remained inactive.” Studies that assess morally courageous behavior find that only about 20% of participants who witness wrongdoings intervene against them, she adds.

Sasse concludes by saying, “Every person can try to become more morally courageous. However, it does not have to be a solitary effort. Instead, institutions such as schools, companies, or social media platforms play a significant role.”

Where Should Your Voice Be Heard?

While there are many choices regarding where one can speak up, it’s clear from the research that the greatest influence and impact comes from social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn. Some appeal to a broad audience that cuts across social and cultural lines, whereas more professionally targeted audiences like LinkedIn serve a much narrower band. Generally speaking, professionals and academics have less influence on the mass market social media platforms. But that can change.

My Final Argument

Speaking up against injustices, fascism, inequality, violence, racism, misogyny, climate degradation, and authoritarianism is not only a moral imperative but also a practical necessity, especially for professionals. The argument for why people should raise their voices against such societal issues can be structured around several key points:

  • Silence Means Approval. It might seem that staying silent is your way of avoiding conflicts and unnecessary drama, but you could be sending the wrong signal. Refusing to speak against injustice might translate to accepting the status quo. This makes you an enabler. Silence is also a means of communication. This shouldn’t discredit the importance of keeping silent. Silence works best in moments of anger or when you are unsure of what to say; however, keeping silent amid injustice only allows injustice to prevail. A voice can always make a difference. When you remain quiet, people will never acknowledge or recognize your values and desires. As individuals, it is imperative to know when to stay silent and when to speak up. Speak up when it will help others!
  • You Might be the Next Victim. If it happens to anyone, then it can happen to you. When injustice abounds, it breaks all strata of moral thresholds and creates room for more injustice. If you fail to speak up against little things, you are exposing your human rights to being trampled upon in the future. If little issues are often overlooked, they aggravate into bigger societal issues. Therefore, if you are not speaking up when things are wrong, you might be embroiled in the issues you once overlooked.
  • Historical Responsibility. The lessons from history are clear. In situations where authoritarian regimes have risen to power, a common theme has been the silence or complicity of the intellectual and professional classes. The rise of fascist regimes in the 20th century, for example, was often facilitated by the passive or active support of academics and professionals who either endorsed these regimes or did nothing to oppose them. Speaking out against injustices and authoritarian tendencies is not just a moral obligation but a historical one to prevent the repetition of some of the darkest chapters in human history.
  • Safeguarding Democracy and Human Rights. Academics and professionals are uniquely positioned in society. They are often regarded as experts, thought leaders, and moral guides. Their voices carry weight and can influence public opinion and policy. By speaking out, they can help to safeguard the principles of democracy, such as the rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of individual and minority rights. Their silence in the face of growing authoritarianism can be misconstrued as consent, inadvertently legitimizing the erosion of these fundamental principles.
  • Ethical and Professional Responsibility. Many professions are guided by ethical codes that emphasize integrity, truth, and community welfare. For example, the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles state the importance of protecting the welfare and rights of individuals. Similarly, academics are often bound by a commitment to truth and the advancement of knowledge for the public good. Speaking out against injustices and authoritarianism is in alignment with these ethical principles.
  • Educational Role. Professionals, in particular, have a role in educating and shaping the minds of future generations. By taking a stand against fascism, war, authoritarianism and social injustices, they set an example for their students, demonstrating the importance of civic engagement and moral courage. This is not just about imparting knowledge but also about fostering critical thinking and ethical values in students.
  • Catalyst for Broader Social Change. Historically, professionals have played key roles in social movements advocating for civil rights, environmental protections, and other social issues. Their involvement brings credibility and can galvanize public support. Speaking out against injustices can catalyze broader social change, inspiring others to take action.
  • Global Impact and Solidarity. In an increasingly interconnected world, the actions and voices of American academics and professionals have a global impact. Speaking out against injustices has domestic implications and demonstrates solidarity with those fighting similar battles in other parts of the world.

Summing Up

In summary, the call to “speak up” is more than a moral imperative; it’s a crucial step towards bridging the widening gap between expert knowledge and public opinion. The silence of professionals and academics undermines their relevance and contributes to a society that needs to be more informed and divided on critical issues. The time to speak is now, for in the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others