I’ve worked on some interesting cases in my short legal career but one of my most rewarding has been a civil rights matter in an undisclosed midwestern state. I was talking to an advocate I work with there recently and we were wondering out loud how a particularly bad actor in the area had been allowed to discriminate for so long. Several employees working with the guy had complicitly also agreed to discriminate by refusing to stand up to him. In the advocate’s experience, “People don’t care unless it personally affects them. They want to keep their jobs and not make trouble.” In his twenty-plus years as a civil rights advocate, it wasn’t the outright racists that bothered him as much as those who saw discrimination and did nothing about it.
I was dumbfounded. What kind of people went along with something they knew to be wrong for years? Were there really no other jobs available that didn’t require their participation in morally wrong acts? When faced with an opportunity to help the advocate sue the “bad guy,” many of the employees refused to help even as some of their former co-workers stepped up to challenge him.
I told the bf about this in my usual, high-pitched voice of incredulity. His response was decidedly less outraged. “People are inherently selfish. Are you really surprised?” he asked. Years of being around Peace Corps, Teach for America, social entrepreneur, do-gooders had rosied my view of the world, he argued. The rest of the world was far less concerned with the well-being of others and far more likely to turn the other way when faced with injustice.
I sheepishly retreated. But even as I write this, I wonder if I really am naive and have been spoiled by years as a member of the Do Right in the World Fraternity or if most people, when challenged by wrong, will rise to the occasion. I also wonder how much of my world view is colored by class differences –the ease in which I imagine these employees can get a new job is surely a consequence of my own particular experiences. Do I have the luxury to pursue a life of doing good while others must choose between feeding their kids or standing up to a racist/sexist/homophobic boss? Do I have the right to judge their actions when I have never had to make such a choice?