Thursday, December 27, 2007

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

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