Saturday, October 06, 2012

The lonely path of righteous refusal

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dissension, dissenters, sociology, short biographies

I didn't take me long to read Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press. However, it did take a while to think it over. We all like to think we would help others who were being oppressed, or at least refuse to actively harm them, but is it true? In the vast majority of cases, it has not proven true.

The book is built around the stories of four persons: a border official in Switzerland in 1938 who allowed hundreds of Jews to enter illegally; a Serbian in 1991 who falsely identified dozens of Croats as Serbs during an exercise in "ethnic cleansing", saving their lives; an Israeli soldier in an elite unit who, in 2003, joined a dozen of his fellows to sign a letter detailing why they would no longer enforce immoral laws against Palestinians being harassed by Jewish authorities; and a Hispanic-American financial adviser who in 2003 blew the whistle on a major Ponzi scheme in Houston, one that was second in size only to Bernie Madoff's.

Four people, very different from one another. Three men and a woman. Three of the four lost their jobs; the fellow in Serbia had had no job to lose, but he was lucky not to lose his life. The border officer in 1938 could well have lost his life, even in "neutral" Switzerland. In all four cases, the person did not truly stand alone, though in three cases they were "locally alone", unaware of others who were also acting out of conscience rather than taking orders. And even for the Israeli soldier, with his dozen fellows, social isolation and obloquy followed and haunted them thereafter.

Compared to these people's stories, the one I am about to mention is very minor, but it illustrates the pressures one must endure to break ranks with the momentum of a popular effort. I worked for three years developing specifications and some of the software for a major project, but I became concerned that the overall design was faulty and the programming, being done by a consulting firm, was flimsy and filled with bugs. Near the end of the three years, once we had filed for a patent on a key component (yes, you can patent a computer program), the group leader announced that we must quickly get the product ready for general use. I protested that it was still more of a prototype, quite far from being ready. I was quite disturbed, and I'd been growing more uncomfortable for the prior year, because all the others were very gung-ho, in spite of many very damaging flaws in the program's operation. My concerns were brushed aside. I argued privately with the other programmers and designers, one by one, to no avail.

I continued my work, wondering what to do, when nature took a hand. I discovered I was dying of cancer. On the last two days before taking a few extra days off before Thanksgiving, I carefully crafted a three-page letter. My primary goal was to stop the program going into production until the specific weaknesses I identified could be corrected, a process I estimated (underestimated it turned out) would take at least two more years. I did not send anything by e-mail. I printed three copies, dated and signed them, and hand delivered them to the offices of the supervisor, the manager, and the general manager. I told myself, if I wasn't dying, I'd have to prepare to be fired. I went home. We went away for the holiday weekend; I figured I ought to enjoy myself as much as possible in spite of the pain. Upon our return, I went into the hospital, expecting to die on the operating table.

As it happened, the surgeon is an expert and tracked down every little bit of cancer. Thus, six days later my supervisor arrived at my hospital bedside to visit me. He assured me that the "flap" over my letter hadn't lasted long, and the software team had been ordered to prepare specifications for a "version 2.0" with a nearly complete redesign to avoid the weaknesses I had identified. He and I agreed that I would probably have a six month convalescence, and if I did any work in that period, it needed to be lower-stress than such a hot project. I was relieved. I still had a job. I was a bit sad that it effectively ended a thirty-year career in software design and programming. Once I was ready for full time work again, I'd be in a different division. Looking back over the twelve years that have passed since then, I realize how very lucky I am. I could have been fired or forced out in any number of ways, the sympathy due to my illness notwithstanding. I liked the programmers and designers I worked with on that project. I haven't seen any of them since.

Some acts of conscience save lives. Some just save a little money. Some save reputations. None is easy. I recall the story of Elijah, who is not quite so fearless and heroic as he is made out. He was very emotional, and probably had to work himself up to his signature deed: challenging the prophets of Baal and eventually leading the slaughter of 400 of them. Shortly, he received a letter from Queen Jezebel, a very credible death threat. He fled into the desert. God sent him an angel. He asked the angel to take his life so Jezebel would not have the pleasure of doing so. The angel led him on a long walk—40 days—to meet God. He again requested to die, complaining that he stood alone. Boy, was he depressed! God replied, "I have reserved to myself 7,000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." God sent him to Elisha, so he would have a companion and a successor.

We need others. We need them so badly that we can commit almost any act, or overlook almost any crime, if the alternative is standing alone. I marvel at the aloneness of Jesus. Though he had 11 faithful followers (and a thief) in his entourage, and though they were supported by a number of rich women, the Gospels make clear that before he was resurrected, only one of all of them understood what he was doing, Mary of Bethany, who anointed him. Particularly in John's Gospel, his frustration is evident time and again, at their dullness. Eventually, praying for the strength to undergo Golgotha, he was literally sweating blood. Christians believe he is God. The better term is God-Man. And that man was stressed to the limit!

Yes, we need others. Even where conscientious objectors are treated humanely, there will be many who call them traitors. They find it hard to get work, unless they move to a place where they are not known. Even where a whistle-blower is well treated, the incident is certain to precipitate a major career change, if not end it altogether. And there will usually be some who call you a betrayer. Yet I am heartened by taking another look at the work of Stanley Milgram, who performed the "electrocution" experiment in which students were asked, and then demanded, to push a switch to "shock" an actor who was faking his pain, in a "learning" experiment. Much is made of the fact that in the initial experiment 70% of the students complied right up to the highest "shock" level, which had the actor faking a fainting swoon. I am frankly amazed that 30% mustered the gumption at some point to refuse to go further. I am further amazed that nobody tried to knock Milgram's block off (or if anyone did, he didn't report it).

There is a middle ground there. Those who refused to go further didn't attack the experimenter, they simply refused to continue. As Milgram reported, a few did stalk out angrily, but most who refused were shaking and sweating, yet held their ground. In declining to harm (or seem to) the actor, they also refrained from harming anybody. Some may dream about being like Rambo and cleaning things up with guns blazing. Real life isn't like that. As the Swiss border official and the Serbian villager found, a bit of studied deception was much more effective. And as the Israeli soldier and the American whistle-blower found, open refusal requires persistence, but can finally be effective. Mr. Press doesn't state this, but I suspect the exposing of the 2003 Ponzi scheme made the later exposing of the Madoff affair go a little more quickly, once a few concerned folks began to raise the alarm. Yes, it still took years. But it might have taken years longer, and the loss could have been 2-3 times greater. Who knows, it might still be going on!

No comments: