On the Corner


When you see someone engaged in “wrong action”­ do you speak up ­ or do you tend to remain silent? If someone’s in trouble facing a desperate situation do you tend to insert yourself into the situation ­ or do you play it safe? Would you ever be a “whistle-blower?” Have you ever written a letter to a congressperson expressing a point view you believe differs from the one that person holds?

If you answered “no” to the above questions, I urge you to begin wondering “why.” Ask yourself: “Why have I been reluctant to act — even when the action only demands distant and safe communication? What holds me back? Is it fear — fear of what? Do I regularly choose not to become involved? Am I simply someone not prone to action? Does moral action differ in fit to my self-image — my ‘God-given’ personality?”

Let’s imagine that the choice of action involves a group. What choices would you make in relation to the group’s decision? Would you be willing to stick your neck out and assume a leadership role in shaping that decision? If so, what criteria would you use to decide what to recommend to the group? How would you decide what is the right thing to do?

If the group were a jury and 11 members believed the person to be guilty, but you believed the person to be innocent, would you stand behind your belief and try to convince others of your point of view? Or would you simply assume that the other 11 members know better and therefore “go along” with their decision?

If you choose to remain silent, — to abdicate personal responsibility to the group, ask yourself “why.” Do you find it threatening to take a public position on a controversial matter? Do you see such action as being overly argumentative by introducing a measure of “disharmony” between yourself and others? Perhaps you see such action as getting in the way of orderly decision making — taking unnecessary time — being inefficient.

I find the whole notion of “moral muteness” intriguing. Some see the term related primarily to business applications, but I use it much more broadly ­ more in line with the idea of social conscience. This suggests that as a member of a social system I have a responsibility to confront what I perceive as “wrong action.”

I must also communicate the rationale I use to form the belief system on which I act. It says that I need to be sensitive to the workings of my own conscience in relation to that which I believe is right and what is wrong. It requires me to be able to articulate why I hold a particular belief. It demands that I speak up when wrong actions take place in organizations with which I am associated. It also requires that I listen fully and work to understand the point of view of someone holding a position different from mine.

Some, however, choose moral muteness. A potential “whistle blower,” for instance, might refuse to act out of fear of punishment. Of course, a corps council member might choose the same course of action because he/she believed the scope of the decision simply wasn’t worth the trouble of raising the moral question. In other words, the reward for speaking up didn’t seem large enough — or the member might fear being seen as something other than “nice.” Some companies will take whatever action they deem in their best interest as long as it is lawful. Others will genuinely try to do what is right on the basis of a basic ethical principle by which they live. They act on their beliefs with consistency. They have awareness of the values that guide their lives

As is often the case — good communication is critical. Just standing up and having a shouting match is counterproductive. Blaming doesn’t make it. Labeling and name-calling is detrimental to the argument, elevates feeling over rational thought, and personalizes the debate.

Act within the dimensions of your own personality. If you are usually quiet in a discussion, see that as an asset. Quiet people often have much more power in a group than they realize. When they do talk, people listen. If you’re an active participant, avoid stridency — cool the tone of the discussion, stay rational. Think things through prior to expressing an opinion.

Whatever you do, remember that virtue is based on good character, and that the price of freedom is paid for by responsible conduct. To remain morally mute in the face of wrong action is both morally immature and irresponsible.

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