Wordy Wednesday: Silence is a War Crime

In my thinking about where my “edges” are in what qualities and attitudes I need in friends, Rick made this point:

Think of it this way. A classic prohibition mobster would kill people, maim them, break legs, etc. He would run a criminal organization which could have liquor, rigged gambling, prostitution, etc. He’s not a nice person even if he comes home, kisses his wife, plays with his kids, and has family dinners with all his brothers and sisters. He’s just not a nice person, irrespective of all the personal testimony and character witness of those around him. He will never be a nice person, despite the nice things he does, the charities he fronts, and the public face he projects. There are no amount of good deeds that cancel out a bad inner character. This isn’t a scale with balances. His wife, who supports her husband and knows what he does for a living isn’t a nice person. His brothers, sisters, and mother, who support him and think he’s a great guy, but know where his money comes from aren’t nice people. These are all enablers and accomplices, they aren’t nice people.

Brandon asked this:

To make sure I have some clarity here, let me bring your example back around to the political arena, since this is essentially what kicked this whole thing off. If Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, etc. are bad people, are those people who support them/vote for them, the same as the brother, sister, and mother in your prohibition mobster example? Enablers and accomplices?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this – Brandon is very good at getting me to think critically – and I’ve come around to answer his question with a pretty emphatic “yes.”

My response to him was this:

I’m going to go back to my Holocaust training here, Brandon. In this field of study, people are typically classified into four categories: victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. I would argue that there is a fifth category; those who genuinely don’t know what’s happening, whether they are simply not paying attention, they’re being actively deceived, or they’re too young or too feeble to understand.

My thinking echos Rick’s here; if you KNOW that something terrible is happening, if you KNOW that someone is behaving (or would behave, if given the right conditions) in a way that you find repugnant, then YES, you are at the very least an enabler (I think “accomplice” requires active participation). A huge part of my personal practice of personhood is that I refuse to be a bystander. THAT’S what this musing is about; I am trying to discern where my “edges” are in terms of what I can and cannot abide in my environment.

Then, privately, I was confronted with another perspective that asked me how I could be supportive of the President when terrible things have happened under his administration and with his full knowledge and consent, as well.  That’s a really great question, but it’s one that I have little trouble addressing.

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle of what one’s stated goals or intentions are and what one has to do because of the situation.  No one is perfect (duh; I always feel like an idiot writing that); the value of a person, I think, is how consistently and carefully one tries to reach one’s best and truest self (or, at the very least, how little of one’s energy is spent in attacking or otherwise mistreating others).  We’re going to fail – all of us, and to greater or lesser degrees – but the point is that we’re working toward those higher goals and not spending our energies actively trying to demean, berate, belittle, or persecute others.

The President’s stated goals are very much in line with what I want our national ideology to be; equality for all people (though I do wish he’d finally work up the nerve to say he supports full marriage equality), and a strong, educated, and compassionate society.  Mr. Obama doesn’t say, out loud and in front of microphones, that he thinks women should be denied rights to their own bodies, that immigrants are destroying our economy and our culture, that gay people are abominations, or that there is only one acceptable way to worship and anyone who doesn’t toe that line is less than those who do.  I’ve heard that – and far, far worse – from people who self-identify as Republicans and Christians, both on television and in person in my real, everyday life.

What’s more, I’ve seen the President actually listen to those who disagree with him and genuinely (and, in the minds of some, too enthusiastically) try to find common ground.  Conversely, when confronted with information that contradicts their viewpoint, I’ve watched those same self-identified Republicans and Christians – both on t.v. and in my real life – either outright ignore that evidence or work to discredit it, often through some really ridiculous contortions and convolutions.  Honestly; sometimes I wonder if they can even hear themselves.

As part of my commitment to not be a bystander, I’m holding with the wisdom of Desmond Tutu; silence is complicity.  Until we figure out how to manifest our purest and truest selves, we’re going to have to learn to live with our shortcomings.  For me, I’m going to give my energies – and my friendship – to those whose aims and goals more closely echo mine.

image credit


*it seems I’ve been thinking about this for a while; here’s a meditation I did about movie actors back in 2008 which touches on the same ideas I’m wrestling with here*



Filed under compassion and connection, concerns, critical thinking, Friends, frustrations, ideas and opinions, messages from the Universe, politics, ruminating, social issues, this is NOT a drill

16 responses to “Wordy Wednesday: Silence is a War Crime

  1. Improbable Joe

    Didn’t I see this on Monday?

  2. Improbable Joe

    OK, and on to my real comments:

    Obama is too far wrong on too many issues for me to actively support him. I might hold my nose and vote for him as the lesser of two evils, but that doesn’t make him not an “evil” in my mind.

    I don’t even know how to deal with people who support bad people, but who I don’t have to deal with directly. Like all of Hollywood, pretty much… something like hundreds of those assholes have come out to support Roman Polanski, who drugged and raped a little girl and fled the country years ago to avoid his jail sentence. Now I can’t watch ANYTHING that isn’t a tiny independent flick without feeling a little bit guilty about it.

  3. If we delve a bit into the reason behind Rick’s prohibition mobster’s overtly inappropriate behavior, we might uncover a latent intent behind it that blurs the lines of “good” and “bad”.

    For example, let us consider that our mobster may have the world view that “family comes first”, and that there is a distinct line of separation between family and those-who-are-not-family. If we then consider that mobs are, more than anything else, family-centered operations (distinct culturally from gangs or cartels) then we might consider that the business of being a mobster has a purpose: To provide for family.

    The prohibition mobster’s world view (as for most of the rest of us) guides him in terms of how he relates to the world. Because of this, he does not take responsibility for humanity as a whole. He chooses to be responsible only for his family. Is that selfish? I would argue that it depends very much upon the lens through which his behavior is viewed.

    Without context, it is simply behavior done with a purpose. To say that the mobster has “a bad inner character” without providing context and intent to his actions is blindingly judgmental, and understates anecdotal evidence that humans will almost always act toward others with best intent within the framework of their world view.

    You said that the point is “that we’re working toward those higher goals and not spending our energies actively trying to demean, berate, belittle, or persecute others,” but this is not a behavior we can impose on others. If we accept that behavior is chosen, done with best intent and framed by individual world view, the best we can do is to live authentically by making our own choices and trying to connect with others (who, in many cases, may not be doing the same thing we’re doing).

    When we choose people to be our friends, we take on an implicit obligation to understand them, support them and help them to be the best “them” they can be, and to allow them to do the same for us. This is not a black-and-white arrangement; it requires all the same tools for success that any close relationship does: Communication, trust, commitment, compromise, tolerance. A friendship is a constant work-in-progress that is forever being redefined, rebuilt as the people that make it up change and grow and learn. We can’t tell a friend how to be. Their choices are their own and we cannot be responsible for them. We are only responsible for how *we* choose to act. If someone we know acts in a way we would not, and we say, “that behavior is wrong,” we are taking on an inappropriate obligation to judge their behavior and closing off any avenue that we might have to understand them. If we ask, “Why do you do/believe/think this way?” we open the door to dialog which allows individuals to contribute equitably to what often becomes a more complete view of the situation. I would argue that, if we would seek to make the world as perfect a place as it can be, we must free ourselves individually from the constraints of “right” and “wrong” and instead focus on making our own choices well while, at the same time, relating to others from a place of understanding.

    By choosing to give your energies and your friendship ONLY to those whose aims and goals echo yours, how can you think critically about your own choices? How can you hope to come closer to understanding if the only views you choose to expose yourself to are your own? If your quality relationships can only be based on commonality of aims and goals, how can you know whether YOU are the perpetrator of repugnant behavior? If strength comes from diversity, are you stronger for choosing to homogenize your relationships?

    • Wayfarer, that’s all well and good – and, for the most part, that’s what I strive for, that meeting of different views and ideas with as open and generous a heart as I can manage; my entire life has been an exercise in this kind of work. I think even you would agree, though, that it would take a truly enlightened Buddha to be able to behave like that in all cases. I DO think that there are instances where it’s NOT inappropriate to take a stand against another’s behavior or beliefs, especially when those things are doing – or have the immediate potential to do – real harm.

  4. Oh I’m so sick of people who believe Obama is no better than Hitler or whatever. It’s so easy to be against everything without being for anything. We have a whole nation of Against. We have a whole Congress of Against.

    I listened to Obama’s speeches, I read his books, and I watched his debates BEFORE casting a vote for him. I’m not surprised that he’s a pragmatic moderate. He’s never said or done anything to lead me to believe he’d be anything more or less.

    What would you have him do differently? Close Guantanamo? He tried and failed because he’s not a dictator and he has to have a plan for where to put those prisoners and how to handle them and no other jurisdiction in this nation could, or would, handle them. Sometimes you have the mess you’re left with. What else? He saved the US Auto Industry – which others were going to leave for dead – saving billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. He withdrew troops from Iraq, exactly as he said he would and he escalated Afghanistan, just like he said he would. He signed the bill formalizing indefinite detention – yes. What other bill was he going to be given to sign? What else was coming out of near-constantly deadlocked Congress? Pragmatic Moderate. Why the hell would you think he’s going to be a flaming liberal or dictatorial savior? People who think, or thought that are imbeciles.

    I don’t think he’s the lesser of two evils. I think he’s a good man, a smart man, and a competent man. He’s not doing things exactly the way I would and he doesn’t have the same priorities I have, but because I’m an adult I can understand that and I can live with it. Believing in all or nothing, blacks and whites, and uncompromising last stands are the fairy tales of children or the fantasies of mental midgets. It’s not how the real world works and it’s not how a Representative Republic works. Since too many people in this country believe in give nothing, take everything, this nation is currently not working very well.

    I admire you, Mrs Chili, for thinking this position through carefully. And I believe you’re right. To remain silent is to allow injustice to conquer.

    • Improbable Joe

      Yeah, me too. I’m so sick of black and white thinking, like claiming that either people support Obama or they’re claiming he’s Hitler. Or how either people agree with ya person’s position, or they are unthinking and immature imbeciles . Sick to fucking tears over it, and I’m glad to see that you are too.

      • Do you have a point to make, Joe?

      • Improbable Joe

        Its right there in the words I typed. It is possible to disagree with someone about how to get from A to B without pretending that they are being extremists and calling them names.

        More importantly, you’re an example of why Obama is possibly the worst president ever. He’s co-opted good people on the right side of the issues who temper their criticisms when the person on the wrong side is on the “right” team. The same way that the Tea Party showed up as soon as a Democrat was in office and started complaining about what are fundamentally Republican policies, Democrats have watered down their criticisms of Obama for doing the same things that Bush and Cheney pushed for.

        I’m not talking about political purity and refusal to compromise. Obama starts in the center and invariable compromises to the right, in large part because no one on the left holds him accountable. So Obama and the Democrats will keep moving more to the right, more in the pockets of the corporations, because they have your vote no matter what, and they are aiming at the non-bigoted Republican vote.

      • Worst president ever . . . hyperbole much? I don’t take you seriously, Joe, because you’re a joke and your claims are ridiculous sensationalism.

      • Improbable Joe

        Well, one of us is capable of having a mature conversation, and it isn’t the one who calls people a “joke” and has a temper tantrum any time they see me disagreeing with them.

      • Gentlemen!

        Joe, this is part of my problem; I can’t BE hardline. It’s just not part of my nature, and even if it were, I’d feel wrong doing it. The whole “let he who is without sin” bullshit comes up; if I took an all or nothing stance, I would be required to be the perfect embodiment of all that I hold up as good and right, and sometimes I falter, too.

        The point I’m making is that I understand that we’ve got to allow for some human error – there has to be wiggle room. The question I’m wrestling with is HOW MUCH wiggle room.

        I’ll put up with the fact that my husband can’t drop his jeans in the fucking hamper to SAVE HIS LIFE (I’ll post a picture someday of the jeans on the floor right next to the aforementioned fucking hamper so you’ll see I’m not lying), but I wouldn’t put up with his having an affair. There are lines and limits and degrees in EVERY relationship (even, I think, in relationships with ourselves). The problems arise when one is confronted with issues and problems that either come too close to the lines and limits or go JUST over them. Are we willing to forgo the good in a relationship for the sake of that one shortcoming? In the case of the hamper vs. the affair? Yes. In the case of mean-spirited or anti-compassionate political views? I’m not so sure.

    • I’m being asked on – several fronts – about how, if I’m going to condemn others for behaving in ways that I find reprehensible, I can abide by some of the unsavory things the President has done (and whether or not the people I love and call friend are perfect, or if I’m willing to overlook things in them that I condemn in others. In short, I’m being called out for being hypocritical).

      First of all, I hate the black and white of it. The implication is that I can only be supportive of someone if they’re perfectly good (and, by extension, can only criticize someone if they’re perfectly bad). That is patently ridiculous.

      What I struggle with is the edges. At what point is someone’s behavior or beliefs or attitudes SO divergent from mine that I need to remove myself from them? Do I have that right, or is there some sort of cosmic responsibility to abide EVERYONE and EVERYTHING? Am I entitled to be a bit self-defending and protect myself – and those around me – from toxic people and attitudes?

      Everything is a shade of grey. I’m trying to work out where my tolerance for the different hues lies.

  5. Improbable Joe

    Chili-baby, the hard line I take is on principles but not necessarily on people. Like I said, I’ll probably hold my nose and vote for Obama because he’s miles better than the nuts on the Republican side, but I will NOT make excuses for him. Where he does right I’ll commend, and where he does wrong I’ll criticize. I think you’re wrong to support Obama to the extent that you do, but I don’t think you’re a bad person because we share principles if not priorities and weighting strategies. I don’t think Rick’s a terrible person for making excuses for Obama, but I think he’s incorrect.

    What goes for Obama goes for people I know as well. I don’t cut myself much slack, and I don’t cut much slack to anyone else either. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be friends with anyone, because everyone has flaws. I’m not above saying “hey, that’s not cool” or “that makes me uncomfortable, so knock it the hell off.” And if someone is blatantly racist or sexist or homophobic or makes a habit of treating people badly, how am I supposed to be that person’s friend?

    And I’m troubled by the whole “he’s a decent person, but…” or “she’s nice to me, but…” sort of rationalizations that go on. It doesn’t mean you have to cut that person out of your life for any transgression, but you can call an asshole an asshole.

    • Yep; that.

      I’m pretty demanding of myself, but I find that I’m less so of others. I’m working on that, though (CLEARLY, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion, now, would we?); I’m coming around to the idea that we have precious little time here, so what we do with it really DOES matter.

      Every week, I give my students a couple of quotes to write about as a morning warm-up exercise. This week, the quotes are from Gandhi (the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems) and Goethe (when we treat a man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he could be, we make him what he should be). A good part of my enthusiasm for Obama is that I see what he could be – and I think HE does, too. I see promise and potential and a genuinely decent man. That’s a fine rare thing in politics, and my interest and support of him are born out of that.

  6. Well, chili, here’s what your irascible, cranky, and unreasonable friend says, or at least I’ll say it after I past what Brandon said:

    “To make sure I have some clarity here, let me bring your example back around to the political arena, since this is essentially what kicked this whole thing off. If Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, etc. are bad people, are those people who support them/vote for them, the same as the brother, sister, and mother in your prohibition mobster example? Enablers and accomplices?”

    So, to be blunt, we’re talking the banality of evil here. That’s all I’ve got to say. No, Brandon, I wasn’t calling you evil, it was just a comment on how evil works in society.

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