“Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” ~ J.C. Watts (and others)
Conversely, what about doing the right thing especially when others are watching? Most of us have had moments (too many, in my experience) when it was easier to not do the right thing, to not speak up when the vulgar/racist/sexist joke is made in a group, to turn away when a clerk is berated unjustly by an angry customer, to ignore the bully at work or at school because “It’s none of my business.”
It’s easier to maintain silence rather than to speak out against an obvious injustice and risk the fallout; to save social status, or maybe a job.
In the publishing world, we as writers are often counseled to keep personal opinions – especially political ones – quiet on social media to avoid alienating potential readers. After kowtowing to such instruction for too long, I’ve said my piece on that more recently. And now that I’ve taken the giant step and become a candidate for public office, my well-intentioned son offers the same advice. But as I’ve done with my writing life, I need to politely and respectfully tell him (and possibly my campaign manager!), thanks, but no thanks. Has that stance cost me readers? Will it cost me votes? Possibly. But I can live with that. I’m not sure I can continue to live with myself otherwise.
I’m tired of being silent, of displaying a public persona that is less than who I am. I’m smart enough not to dis employers (or agents, publisher, editors, given my work in the writing world) directly. I’m respectful, no name-calling or slurs. But blogging does offer me the chance to vent about those injustices in a more universal fashion. I admit I’ve become much more self-censoring (circumspect?) on the ’net in the past year or two – and even more so since I filed those petitions for office, but I’m having second thoughts about that as well. I need to find an appropriate middle ground.
Or do I?
I’m reading Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, and while much of her text is dense, philosophical treatise, she spends a great deal of time dissecting the “evils” of our society (written in 2008 at the end of the Bush/Cheney years). With numerous references to Kant, Arndt, and others, and a disturbing section on the Abu Ghraib prison, she expands on the words of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
When do those little lapses, turning away from the off-color joke, etc., warrant a second thought? How do those tiny non-actions accumulate, desensitizing us – as the soldiers prepped for Abu Ghraib were desensitized – to the humanity of others?
Neiman’s text, and the general turmoil on social media these days, has caused me to take stock of my words and actions. Over the years, I can point to several instances where I did, in fact, speak up. One rebellion earned me a semi-public scolding; one, a public, on-the-official-record beratement and my job. I walked away from that fiasco with a friend’s admonishment, “Don’t write any more letters!”, and for a long time, I took his advice and stewed in silence. On the next occasion when I felt compelled to speak, I offered a lame, half-hearted objection, then meekly accepted the voice(s) of authority and did my job. I faced another such incident just this last week against a relatively benign, privilege-based lack of socio-economic awareness, and while I desperately want to continue “speaking truth to power,” it’s tough to risk my livelihood for an ideal, grown-up or not. How do I decide which perceived offense is truly worth the confrontation?
So I ponder, and debate, and hover over the social media post/share too long before turning away – two steps forward and one step back, I hope, rather than the opposite. It would be helpful if the remaining chapters of Neiman’s book offer more specific guidance, but I’m not betting on it. She’s very clear at reminding us there are few absolutes in life, and even fewer easy answers.
“There’s a point, around age twenty…when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.” ~ Ursula Le Guin