Do Not Mistake What Is For What Should Be
Preface: This is the fourth in a series of literary and philosophical self-indulgences, which I have dubbed The Road Chronicles, because they use the concept of a highway as a central organizing metaphor. This particular installment came together during a season of reflection, as the New Year approaches, and as I considered something for #BigIdeas2016.
I've said it before, but it bears repeating that I am not a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer. Because, to my mind, the refrain de facto supplies an excuse for doing nothing about what is wrong in this world. This so-called prayer, you will remember, goes as follows:
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.
Which, I suppose, might be okay — if you ignore the all too common human foibles of ethical and moral inertia, not to mention the natural human tendency to self-protective timidity.
When I was a philosophy graduate student, I wrote a paper arguing that the central issue of ethics and morals is not whether to do what's right, but rather to figure out what is right to do. My central thesis was, and in fact remains, that people (except possibly true sociopaths) universally want to do that which is right; they just differ in what they perceive to be right.
That, I suggest, is why some of the most heinous figures in human history have gone to great lengths to dehumanize the victims of their acts. Because even the depraved more often than not feel the need to do what's right and, therefore, justified. We're simply hard-wired that way.
And being hard-wired to do what's right, it is essential that we develop and exercise our ability to sort out what's right from what's not... and to not mistake what is for what should be...
As we head into 2016, there is no shortage of things that are wrong in the world, in our nation, and indeed in our immediate vicinity of work and home. There are wars ongoing and more and more terrorism brewing on the world scene. There remain racial and economic disparities in the U.S., which can by no stretch of the imagination be justified on the basis that things could not be any better. And there are day-to-day incidents of ethnic, sexual, and age discrimination and injustices, which by all reasonable measures should have been eliminated a decade or two ago.
Yet, instead of seeing a growing unrest and impatience with respect to righting the wrongs, and healing the ills of society, we are actually seeing more and more personal reluctance and social inertia growing up against doing anything about any of it. Even just to the extent of speaking out against injustices and social ills.
A prime example is what occurred running up to, and in the aftermath of the bubble-burst in the U.S. residential real estate market. What we saw during the years 2007 to 2010 was the largest single transfer of wealth from the many to the few, in the history of this nation. Do not kid yourself, while many lost most of their savings for the future, a relative few walked away with millions, indeed billions of dollars. And yet amid the economic terrorism and slaughter, few, if any voices were raised against allowing the venal and greedy progenitors of the collapse to profit hugely from their outright dishonesty and corruption.
If you are not fully aware of events leading to the failure of the U.S. real estate market, and don't have the wherewithal to wade through the dry tomes of facts that have been published by researchers and academics, at least go to see the movie, "The Big Short."
What is striking in this case is the relative quiet about the injustices perpetrated not only by the players in the collapse, but by the government in its aftermath. Even the normally nattering ninnies of the national press were relatively quiet when it came to the event and the bail-out that followed, as the government struggled with taxpayer money to forestall collapse of the nation's economic system and possibly that of the world.
The reason for the relative silence was, I submit, the lack of a clear idea as to what was right to do in the situation. If some of the banks and fellow travelers were "too big to fail," then wasn't the government just doing what it had to do? If you put a lot of the top-level perpetrators in jail for their dishonesty and malfeasance, who would be left with sufficient knowledge and skill to run the system? Wasn't it just better to accept a situation that could not be changed without potentially making it worse, and so wasn't the right thing to do, to do nothing? For if you can't really do anything about the problem, isn't it wiser just to accept the situation?
Thank you, Reinhold Niebuhr. For nothing.
Where, I ask you, have all the "angry men (and women)" gone? Where are the marchers who braved injury and death in the service of bringing a measure of racial and social justice to this nation? Where are the protesters who forced a president not to run for re-election, and who ultimately stopped a war of U.S. adventurism, for which we are all, including our now largely-ignored military veterans, still paying. Curled up with a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's collective works, thank you.
This is not a political rant. It is a lament for the return of the days when it was thought important to have a moral and ethical compass ... when it was thought important to have and foster a sense of righteous outrage and its expression in the face of what is, but should not be.
My personal hope is that 2016 will usher in a new era of activism, at the very least, an era of greatly increased vocalism. One in which it is again held legitimate to openly criticize injustices and call out wrong-doers, be they high-born or low. Be they members of government or Big Business, or war mongers and terrorists. For speaking out in these ways is the best means for ensuring that, as a society, we do not mistake what is for what should be. — Phil Friedman
Author's Notes: As noted above, this post is part of my series, The Road Chronicles, in which I give expression to some of the more literary and philosophical thoughts I normally keep suppressed. Your comments and criticisms are invited and appreciated. They will be treated with respect and answered. If you found the reading worthwhile, you may want also to take a look at the other installments in the series:
"LinkedIn Is a Highway, Not a Destination"
"Cynicism Can Be the Final Refuge of Idealism"
"Reaching Beyond Me"
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boatbuilder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
-- Fair winds and safe harbors...
Text Copyright © 2016 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
Images Credits: the Author, FreeDigitalPhotos.net, and Google Images
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