How did we get to the level of wanton violence, barbarism and intolerance that pervades our culture? We got here by violating the two most important tenets of a civilized society: The necessity of passing judgments on peoples’ behavior; and the recognition of evil people and evil deeds. The highest imperative of a civilized society is its commitment to insuring the safety of its citizens. And it does this by passing judgments on what people do, and providing consequences for their actions. For a safe society to exist, the motivation, background, and “mental state” of those who hurt, abuse and destroy others, is irrelevant. And the reluctance of a society to identify those who undermine the safety and security of the citizenry, as evil, inevitably causes the self-destruction of that society.
We are, and always have been judgmental. If you struggle with that notion, ask yourself why you live where you do; why you work where you do; and why you make the choices you make, to be in the relationships you’re in. All of these choices involve decisions to be around people who share your values and act in ways that you respect. None of these choices are accidental, if not always conscious.
I do not believe that we have become so polarized, hateful and dismissive of each other, because of politics, race, class or income. I believe that we have used these artifacts of culture to deflect and divert our attention away from our colossal denial of evil and our cowardice in calling it out and punishing the perpetrators. Why have we done this? Because it is painful and disorienting to admit to ourselves how horrific and cataclysmically cruel, inhumane and yes, evil, we can be to each other. And instead of facing this, we create excuses, intellectual rationales and endless psychobabble, to explain the unexplainable.
What, then, does evil look like? It looks like mobs of consciousless parasites burning down cities, destroying peoples’ livelihoods (in a party-like atmosphere) and having those charged with the authority to prevent it, do nothing. It looks like bands of gang members beating elderly, defenseless women to death for the crime of shopping for their food. And it looks like career criminals following people home from their work, stabbing them fifty times, and stuffing their lifeless bodies in duffle bags. And worst of all, we must endure the obscenity of listening to apologists tell us what difficult lives these perpetrators have had, and that we need to understand their circumstances.
It is supremely important to understand that we have been sold a myth about human behavior that has contaminated our reaction to destructive and corrosive behavior. The myth states that all people can change, and that dangerous and anti-social individuals can be rehabilitated. The only people who change what they do, choose to do so, because of a painful self-dislike of who they are, and a strong feeling that they find the notion of living the rest of their lives the way they currently do, repugnant and repulsive. I have seen many people, in both my personal and professional lives, undergo profound and striking change. None of them decided to change because they were perfectly content with who they were and the lives they were leading.
The avoidance of passing judgments has permeated all areas of our society. In business, it has created what we call “toxic workplaces.” These are work environments that tolerate values-dissonant, abusive and manipulative behaviors, and give chronically destructive people second, third, fourth, ad nauseum chances to change their behavior. In my corporate consulting work, the most common lament I hear, from all levels of responsibility is: “Why did it take the company so long to fire that person.”
In our educational system we are still engaged in the battle to replace our failing public schools with school choice, the latter giving parents the opportunity to pass judgments on the experiences their children have in one of the most significant periods of their lives. In one of the most astounding ironies of our time, it took a public health debacle to expose the mediocrity and intellectual abuse of our schools.
And in our criminal justice system, the failure to pass judgments has succeeded in totally severing the connection between anti-social, completely corrosive, and brutal behavior, on the one hand, and punishment, on the other hand. It strikes me as the height of bizarreness, to watch criminals walk thru a store, take what they want, and leave, totally unimpeded. Or see totally innocent people knocked off their feet, mercilessly beaten, and robbed; in daylight, with no one coming to their aid.
So, what do we do about it. First, and foremost, we need to re-connect individual decisions with consequences. Nothing will change, in our society, until we re-establish that connection. And the first place this needs to occur, is in our criminal justice system. We need to have it focus on meting out consequences that are commensurate with behavior, and which emphasize punishment, not social engineering. Our culture has a multitude of social problems – none of them will be resolved by understanding behavior that shreds the very fabric of our society. If we abandon judgments, we abandon civilization.
Fifth Wave Leadership
Hi Morrie! You’re very right about this and it concerns me a great deal that we allow ourselves to be numb to acts of organized destruction and violence. And, yet, I do acknowledge that society is pushing toward positive change in which we need to accept and endorse people and lifestyles that have been on the margins. I believe we can maintain high standards of civil behavior while having the hard conversations about social change. Thank you for your thoughts!
Thanks much for your feedback. I agree that we need to accept lifestyles that have been on the margins. I don’t agree that we have any obligation to endorse them. I think that the acceptance would happen faster if their movement stopped shoving their choices down the throats of mainstream society. We went thru this years ago with the gay community and sadly we haven’t learned much from that era. We had a saying, during the days of Mayor Daley, in Chicago, that the provocative antics of the demonstrators were a perfect match for the over-the-top reactions of the Daley machine. In a bizarre way, they needed each other, and it helped them avoid serious discussions.
Say hello to Steve, and have a great holiday.
Morrie send this to the Wall St Journal – maybe their oped will publish it.
Thanks for the suggestion vis-a-vis the WSJ. If you know anyone that can connect me with a useful channel to get to the appropriate person at the Journal, let me know, and I’ll certainly follow-up. I’m not sure, but I think I may owe you a phone call. When’s a good day and time to reach you? ~ Morrie