When I grew up, I discovered I had a lot to learn if I were to have any success with getting in trouble, which I now saw in terms of advocacy. I first had to struggle with the internal/personal aspects. Did all those years as the new kid in so many schools hardwire me to be an outcast? Did all those years where I lived essentially as a mouse program me to be in perpetual reaction formation to my rodent stage? I had/have to be continually observant that I not simply be playing out a tired childhood script. To be a change-agent, one must first be self-aware.
I found myself involved with quite a few organizations, both as an employee and a volunteer. And while organizations are definitely not people; like people they can fall short of their stated goals and objectives. Human beings have always organized themselves into groups for both expressive and instrumental purposes. As industrialized Western culture evolved, our organizations became more hierarchical and exclusive. But if I want to accomplish anything of importance, from marketing a product to combatting racism, I generally have to organize. To collaborate with others is smart. The problem is that after a relatively short period of time, many organizations take on a life of their own, whereby the continuation of the organization itself becomes a significant, sometimes a paramount, objective. For public, corporate organizations, the desires of stockholders can hold sway over everything else. Private, volunteer, non-profit organizations, while still the backbone of civil society, can also renege on their original goals and intentions. Have you ever been to a committee meeting where some member’s objectives are simply to hear themselves talk?
However, if I decide to join an organization, I have to first forget about all of this, and join in good faith, expecting the group will remain true to itself. If in time, I find the group veering off course, I first have to consider whether it’s me that is off base, wait and see, and get some advice. Unless it’s a job where I need the income, I’m always free to strike out on my own. But if a potential good outcome is best achieved on the inside, I still have a lot of thinking to do. I may choose sacrificial insubordination.
James Russell Lowell writes that “Once to every man and nation come the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side”. I suspect that we are actually faced with multiple moments to decide between truth and deceit, between personal and communal gain, between security and risk. Each choice along the way helps set the stage for future ones. We may be presented with opportunities where insubordination is the right and moral choice. If so, this choice will come with a price. Lowell describes truth’s “wretched crust”, an inexorable consequence of challenges to the status quo or to personal and corporate profit. Taking a stand always exposes one to reproach and rejection, which can quickly replace resolve with self-doubt and retrenchment.
I’ve gathered some tips along the way for resisting an unethical status quo. First and foremost, don’t ever go it alone unless there is absolutely no alternative. Determine if someone else is also willing to step forward – for support, to keep you honest, and because two or more people are much more difficult to write off. Next, don’t ever scrimp on strategy. Make sure you understand who and what will constitute your resistance, and formulate more than one plan for countering it. Consider things like organizational charts, loyalties, timing, and history. If you’re taking a stand at work, make sure beforehand that you can afford to lose your job. Only go public as a last resort.
Recognize that ostracism stinks, and that the wearing-down process starts early on. You can’t eat lunch with a moral imperative, so make sure you have family and friends in your corner. If you get labeled a troublemaker, understand that moniker will tend to stick, so you might as well wear it with pride. Furthermore, there are times to intentionally lose the battle in order to maximize one’s chances of winning the ward. There are battles, and wars, to walk away from. There is such a thing as evil, but it always hides out as something else. What evil hates most is exposure, so don’t ever do that until you truly have your ducks in a row. Take your vitamins.
There really are no free lunches in life. You pay at the register for both ethical insubordination and indiscriminate obedience. Standing against injustice is no guarantee of a good night’s sleep. The way I figure, however, what’s a good night’s sleep without a reason to get up in the morning?