Thursday, December 27, 2007

Violence as Policy

I am seeking for words to describe my emotions regarding todays events. It truly saddens me that most of our world accepts violence as a appropriate and effective means of political change. This attitude seems to permeate every country, religion, and political theory.

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
Isaac Asimov

"Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."
Mahatma Gandhi

Speaking up

One of the things that has really been driven home by some of the books that I have read recently is how dangerous inaction can be. Books like The Lucifer Effect and Mistakes Were Made detail many examples of truly evil situations. In many cases these evils were stopped by one person simply having the courage to speak out. The courage of that one then seems to provide support for others who felt the same but simply lacked to courage of that first person. This was one of the main reasons that I chose to speak up at the library board meeting

I’ve always had people express opinions or ideas that I disagree with and until recently I responded as George Bernard Shaw would have, “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn”. I agree with this to and extent and I frequently make this my practice.

Last year I had to take a business ethics course as part of the continuing training at work. In the course they described a situation where a group of people made an unethical and illegal decision. One member of the group was present but not an active participant. He felt that since he was not directly involved in making the decision, he didn’t sign anything, there was nothing with his name on it etc, that he would not have any legal responsibility. This person ultimately lost his job because of an ethics violation. He actively did nothing wrong. All of the actual crimes were committed by other parties. However since he knew of the activities of the others and failed to report it his inaction became an unethical action.

With this in mind I have been more vigilant than I have in the past by refusing to simply remain silent. When conversations with friends and coworkers start to approach a moral or ethical “line in the sand” I feel duty bound to let them know which side of that line I am on and that they have reached a point beyond which I can no longer follow. Typically these comments are things like, “ya’ll are on your own with that.” or “let’s not go there.” One time the situation got so bad that I even had to pull the nuclear option and say, “I want nothing to do with this decision. I’m hanging up now and I will report this conversation to my superiors and the ethics office.” This particular issue was the most serious of the situations, It involved the safety of technicians, but in all of them I feel that without my input things could have gone entirely the wrong direction.
These examples are more serious business ethical issues and I have no reservations about how I handled them. The tricky part comes with what could be considered by some to be less important situations. What about the following? You find out that a $.10 candy machine is malfunctioning and giving free runts and people are taking advantage of it. Telling jokes with friends and the jokes start heading toward the racial and culturally bigoted types. You’re a passenger in a car and the driver is going 75 mph in 65 mph zone. What do you? If something gets out of control on any of these it’s easy to armchair quarterback and say, “Yeah I wish I’d have told him to slow down a little”, but how do you identify that point before hand. And how do you respond proportionally to the offense? These seem to be the cases where I’m struggling the most.
I have noticed that I tend to be more vocal and stand up for my beliefs when my children are involved than when they aren’t. I think the logic here is that, at least in some of the situations, I‘m not trying to change the minds of any of the active participants in the conversation, but I just don’t want my kids to think that by not speaking up that I somehow agree with what is being said. Even in these situations I feel like I might be responding a little stronger than I need to in order to get the same effect.

So that’s the crux of my dilemma. How do I balance the power of silence with the ethical need to say something to distance myself from the behavior?

"In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. "
Martin Luther King Jr.

"Oppression can only survive through silence."
Carmen de Monteflores

"The cruelest lies are often told in silence."
Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

I must confess that when I checked this book out I thought it was going to be a sac religious stick in the eye to religious fundamentalist and biblical literalists. I was expecting it to be filled with examples of how absurd and even self-contradictory many if the rules in the Bible actually are. I was expecting him to have to figure out how to stone people, tie tassels on all the corners of his clothes, grow a beard and keep kosher. So far he has obeyed all of these weird Biblical laws and a few other odd ones to boot.

What I didn't expect is the humble admission that so far the hardest commandments for him to keep are the simplest ones to explain and ultimately the ones that will do us and those around us the most good. He's having the hardest time with telling the truth, not coveting and loving his fellow man. How often do we loose sight of the details and the minutia of our beliefs and forget the really important stuff?
So far I'm only three months into the experiment and I had to turn the book in. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of it.


It occurred to me that I never got around to finishing my review of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

I finished reading this last week and I really enjoyed it. The crux of this book was simply that we need to learn to recognize the self-justifications that we make to try to convince ourselves that the mistakes that we made were not actually mistakes. They go out of the way to not criticize the mistakes themselves. Alone and unjustified a mistake is easily corrected. However, once we start down the path of self justification we tend to make even more mistakes and they in turn create their own self justification.

A friend of mine told me that he actually cited the authors work on his PhD dissertation in economics. A lot of bad economic decisions are made simply because people feel the need to justify the decision once they have invested so much into them. We tend to justify our purchases and speak more favorably once we have committed to them. I know people that have a really hard time saying anything negative about a movie that they’ve just spent $10 and 2 hours watching. The investment in the movie causes them to justify their actions. (Incidentally, I don’t suffer from this particular form of self-justification. I can give you a long list of movies that I not only wish I could get my money back but, I’d like that two hours of my life back and I’d like to have the memory of the movie purged from my neurons. The Star Wars prequels lead this list.)

In the above case he was referring to a monetary or time investment. Sometimes the investment could be much more serious and respectively the self-justification is proportionally higher. High on this list is abusive marriages that stay together because of the kids. What about the current situation in Iraq? Here is a case where the US has spent close to a trillion dollars and cost the lives more American soldiers than the total number of people killed on September 11th. It’s very easy to recognize the self-justification machine at work in our Commander-in-Chief.

Towards the end of the book the authors describe a therapy session they conducted at a management retreat. The participants went around the circle and each was required to tell the biggest mistake that they had made. The only caveat was that they couldn’t say anything at all to justify the mistake. Any kind of face-saving remarks were completely forbidden. It was awkward at first but eventually everybody got the hang of it. After a while they were having so much fun that neighboring classes were coming in to join the fray. I tried this today on a smaller scale at work with a few friends. We had a very similar experience. Gone was the defensiveness and the justification. “This is what I did and wow it was a whopper!” We found that once you take ownership of the mistakes that everything else becomes easier. It’s easier to correct any damage. It’s easier to repair any trust that was lost. And it’s easier to stop the chain of self-justification that inevitable leads to even more mistakes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Perhaps it is just my own lack of linguistics skill however, I’ve found that there are times when the English language falls short in its descriptive ability and new words are required. Last week a coworker was trying to describe the extreme level of micromanagement that our new parent company was putting on us. Since the increase seemed to be exponentially greater than previous “micro”management they coined a new word for it.
Nanomanagement: The process of upper management micromanaging the micromanaged details that middle managers pass on to lower management. (micro)2=nano

Along these lines, lately I’ve felt the need for another neologism. Overwhelmed just does seem to cut the mustard when it comes to my life lately. Let’s start with work. In the past month three of the best engineers in my group have left, two of them promoted within the company and one outside. We’ve hired two new folks to replace them. Since they have little to no experience the extra work load from the three who left is falling primarily on the experienced folks who are still around. Also, the two new guys need to be trained. This is falling to; you guessed it, the experienced guys who are still around. This week the only other experienced guy whose been sharing the load is out on vacation. So today I am quite literally handling the work that two months ago five engineers were doing. Oh yeah that reminds me, my supervisor is taking the next two days off. So today and tomorrow I have to do a few tasks of his while he’s away. And oh yeah I almost forgot, I am also on a special project team to help build our facilities so that they will handle HD video service. So I just kind of giggle when people pop into my cube and ask, “Are you busy?”
Outside of work I am a Boy Scout scoutmaster. I have a great team of assistants and committee members that help ease the load but it still takes a chunk out of my week. I’m also on our church young men’s presidency. Alone this isn’t too stressful but it just becomes one of the many straws.
We’re getting ready for a family Christmas party this weekend. We decided to finish a couple of the rooms that we never got around to from last year’s remodeling project. So my evening and weekends have been loaded with hardwood flooring, painting and crown molding. Victoria and I spent our anniversary weekend together alone at the house, painting, laying flooring and putting up crown molding.
In today’s “No child left behind” world even my 7 year old comes home with two or three hours of homework. Victoria and I end up having to help one or all of them with homework up until 9:00pm or sometimes even later than that.
Overwhelmed? Overwhelmed implies a position above whelmed. Not sure what whelmed actually means but if is a state of normal expectations then I’m definitely well above it. I could cut my work load in half and still classify as overwhelmed. Here comes my new word for the English language. Hyperwhelmed. If active, overactive and hyperactive are the accepted convention for these words then let’s apply the same logic to whelmed.
I apologize to my few regular readers for not posting a blog more frequently than I have lately. I’ve just been hyperwhelmed with the details of life. I’m typing this up on my Blackberry as I wait for a contractor to show up at a job site where a large cable has been cut.
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
-John Lennon-

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Moral Law

I’ve been giving this post an awful lot of thought lately. It was when my socially conscious 13-year old brought it up that I finally decided it was time to write it down.

For millennia philosophers and theologians have debated that nature of good and evil. Some argue that good is simply that which god desires. Basically because God likes it, it is good and because God dislikes it, it is evil. This is called the divine command theory.
Others ask questions like “Why does God like it?” and “Is there something about this that makes God like it?” the answers to these questions imply that there is something more than just the divine command. I tend to agree with this philosophy. Whether something is good or evil stands on its own. God’s opinion is not necessary to define good or evil. I believe that the converse is true. Good and evil are necessary in order to define God.

Along these lines Aaron was very concerned about some of the news reports he had seen the last couple of weeks. It seems that many people try to require belief in god as a necessity to being a good person-that somehow morality itself cannot exist without a belief in God. It’s easy to see how believing in a direct correlation between moral behavior and a belief in God can cause more than a little consternation. This is the dilemma that Aaron was having. The federal government has just cracked down on several “Christian” ministers around the country for their misuse of funds that we supposed to go to charities and to help the poor. All too often these ministers were using the cash to buy more elaborate homes, cars and planes. If morality and belief are codependant then why does this happen?
On the other hand why do so many atheists have such good hearts and behave so morally and “Christian” to their neighbors? I don’t think Angelina Jolie is very good actress, but I can’t help but admire how she spends her money. When others would just focus on themselves she is making a difference in the lives of children. Yesterday I read that she and Brad have committed to build 150 homes in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans to help rebuild the city. Now I put the question to you in the words of James.

"If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?"

I realize that there are millions of believes who behave morally and unfortunately millions of non-believers who behave immorally or amorally. I only focused on the above examples because they tend to disprove the rule that God is a requirement for moral behavior.
I enjoy the works of C. S. Lewis, but I take issue with Lewis’s constant insistence that the existence of morality proves a higher power that created that morality. Some scientist have even taken the quantum leap and claimed that the existence of morality is all the scientific proof needed to prove that God exists. I believe that morality exists separate from a belief in God. The examples that I’ve given illustrate that one does not necessitate the other.
Perhaps this belief is why I am so comfortable with learning the doctrines of other religions and philosophies. Lately I’ve read several books with serious atheistic themes. I’m much more concerned that I teach my family to live morally than religiously. As long as I can make the two go hand in hand I will continue to do so. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve never had to choose one over the other and I hope I never have to. However, from the real life examples that I have seen, I’d much rather keep company with moral people no matter what their religious beliefs.