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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Can it happen here?

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King

Implied in Dr. King’s quote is the notion that we, as a society, will occasionally take a step backward in terms of societal justice, but that over the long-term justice will prevail.  The question is, whose justice? If those in society who want freedom from oppression and persecution, equal rights for all, respect and dignity for all, equal opportunity for all, if we are complacent, then the people deciding what is just, might not be the ones that we hope for and we would have no one to blame for that outcome other than ourselves.  You can’t pray your way to justice, taking it on faith that morality will triumph, action is required. Dr. King knew that. Nelson Mandela knew that. Mahatma Gandhi knew that. This is nothing new. More than 2000 years ago Hillel, a Jewish philosopher and rabbi suggested not only the need to stand up for others, but also of the need for expediency when he wrote in Ethics of the Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

In an effort to explain how people, no matter their point of view, can think that they are in the right, that their point of view is just and justified because of support from a higher power, Nobel prize-winning poet and song writer Bob Dylan, wrote “With God on our Side”. Here are the words to the first stanza:

“Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side”

In this song Dylan goes on to say that the horrific actions taken against the Indians, which can only be described as genocidal, and subsequently those that were taken as the USA was in its formative years and participated in wars, were justified by many with the notion that we were on the side of right, for after all God was on our side. Globally, this concept was and is often repeated as a justification for various actions, often by leaders who know better but realize these kinds of statements are a way to sway and justify actions to the masses (oftentimes as they seek to consolidate their own power).

When has there been a party to a conflict that does not feel that they are on the side of right? The Sunnis and Shias who are at each other’s throats? Each knows they are following the true path. The Israelis and Palestinians? Each can cite endless grievances against each other to justify their actions, and each believes that they represent morality. The Russians/Syrians vs. the rebels? Each can explain why their actions are morally justifiable, even as the Russians are a party to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. How many children’s lives will be cut short or how much potential will be unfulfilled due to years wasted as refugees? One is too many. The story seems to repeat itself endlessly.

I am not willing to cede that each side of a conflict is equivalent, just because the people on both sides of a conflict can justify their actions. There is right and wrong, moral and immoral, and while it may not be clear in all conflicts, many times it is.

I am Jewish and even though I was born in and am a citizen of the United States, for my entire life I have heard over and over that you can’t take living in a safe environment for granted. While the United States has been the beacon of light and hope for many, that beacon is not guaranteed, unless you are willing to work for it speaking out and taking action as necessary. Can that beacon go out and be replaced by an authoritarian rule? Clearly it can. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who studied adherence of ordinary folk to authoritarian instructions after WWII, would also say yes. So would Phillip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, whose famous prison experiment had to be curtailed early as people learned a bit too easily how to play the roles of oppressor and oppressed.

As a successful, wealthy society we can become complacent and take our safety for granted, but just below the surface a miasma can fester. It is too easy to brush off the African American who is killed at a routine traffic stop, or those who are harassed for walking down the street, or the doctor on a plane who efforts to assist an ill passenger are rejected by the crew, as an anomaly. But we all know that they are not an anomaly. They are symptoms of a greater underlying problem.

Can it happen here? That is a question that has been repeatedly asked of me and by me throughout my life. In my immediate context it is aimed at the rise of a government that would hold positions similar to Nazi Germany. While it is easy to say no, that we live in a different time and a different place, I am truly not so sure that it is all that different. Remember Hitler was elected to power due to a suffering middle class, and a liberal class that was ineffectual in developing an opposition. The persecution of the Jews in Germany and Europe were a method of blaming society’s problems on a group, on the “others”, that only if we did away with them everything would be great. And Hitler? He was the only one who could make it happen. Today we see a lot of blame being heaped on the “others”.

The whole things leaves me greatly conflicted, depressed and wishing I was doing more to improve our society. Who are we to live comfortable, safe lives when there is a single person out there whose life is imperiled or who suffers abuse, not because of any crime they committed, but simply because of who they are?

Donald Trump in his battle to brush away the claims of his sexual assaults on women, after calling them liars and ugly, mentioned, not for the first time, that there is an international cabal of bankers who are controlling things and bringing Hillary to power. This is an old meme, written about in the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, a Russian fabricated document, used by the Nazi’s which described how Jews were planning to take over the world and install a world government. Trump is one desperate speech away from saying that directly. He still has about 40% of the vote. Can it happen here? Yes, unless we prevent it.



Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 15, 2016 at 9:57 am

Posted in Human Behavior

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