The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!

Important Questions on Privilege and Power

In the past few months, discussions of privilege and power have come up in both professional and personal aspects of my life. I feel I am in a position to see both sides, as I have been both treated well by white mainstream culture as a minority, but have also been in a very bad academic situation which was both racist and sexist (and just terrible to students in general), and experienced a lot of racism while growing up. I have been speaking with people who feel very wronged, and with people who have no clue about differences. Sometimes I have seen reverse racism, which I think is equally as destructive as racism. I have seen outright insensitivity—and also its variant of ignorance.

Over the years, I have worked with extremely diverse populations and done a lot of work with international education in addition to higher education (in which I hold a master’s degree). So how do we heal rifts and divides? These are very complex issues, and the unfortunate Trump regime has brought a lot of negative aspects of race and privilege out of the woodwork. This has shown us that many people feel there is a downside to diversity and political correctness, and perhaps teaches us that we have left some people out of the discussion, no matter how wrong we feel they are. We have to be careful to avoid simplistic and knee-jerk responses and actions as liberals. We cannot threaten or implicate people just because they belong to a certain background. Doing so only creates more animosity and tension. We all need to inform ourselves with hard data and statistics to get the facts straight. But then we need to act with empathy.

So here are some questions that I feel are important for discussion. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts to avoid dichotomizing, I have created a dualistic model here. However, this does not simply mean white man versus minority woman. There are many white men who are in disadvantaged positions, and the recent Chicago mayoral election of Black lesbian Lori Lightfoot has raised many qualms that she is not necessarily “of the people.” Many of us may be in situations where we are in a position of privilege as well as situations in which we are not.

For those in positions of power or privilege, or who may be PERCEIVED to be in such positions, consider the following:

-Is it possible that you are not aware of the fact that you do hold some privilege due to your birth, SES, race, or favoritism? Self-awareness is key.

-Are you aware that others may feel your privilege and power as a threat? This is not to fault to you, but just to make you conscious of how you are seen.

-You and your ancestors may not at all have played a part in it, but are you aware of the roots of racism in America, especially with regard to slavery, the extinction of Native Americans, and immigration policy?

-You and people in your circles may personally be wonderfully supportive, nondiscriminatory, and nonracist. However, there is such a thing as institutionalized racism and if we look at the statistics, we cannot deny that there is still a lot of discrimination toward minority groups.

-What you might consider an innocuous comment might be perceived as a micro-aggression by the other person.

-Skin color does indeed make a difference and hold an advantage in American society. If you have never been in the physical minority before, visit a country or culture opposite to yours, and you will understand.

-I personally believe as an artist or writer that you have the right to include other cultures in your work or to create things in a style of a culture that is not your own. However, have you done it in a sensitive, informed, and culturally-appropriate way?

For those who are part of any sort of minority group or PERCEIVE themselves to be in such positions, consider the following:

-While hard data shows us it is true that white people generally hold more power and advantages in American society, be careful not to lump all white people together and make assumptions. A power-hungry white male Ivy League dean is not the same as a second-generation Hungarian factory worker in Cleveland. Many white people who appear successful now have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and worked their way up the class system.

-Rude, hurtful, or unpleasant remarks people have made to you may have come from a place of malice. Or they may have come from a place of ignorance or without any ill will. Is it possible in some situations you may be reading into things due to previous bias and negative mental filter?

-How are people really treating you/what are their actions? They may not be using the right terminology that is considered politically correct or culturally sensitive, but are they ultimately respectful and goodhearted? Don’t get obsessed with language.

-What baggage are you carrying that may affect your day-to-day life? While I agree we cannot deny the statistics that show there still is indeed a disturbing amount of discrimination on many fronts, be sure to work on your own mind, body, and soul to be able to distinguish between what is self-caused unhappiness versus that from the outside world. This is a very Buddhist/Asian perspective, and it is most important to start with ourselves, to have peace of mind before we attack or accuse others.

-Just as all white people are not the same, not all minority groups are the same. While this might sound like a no-brainer, sometimes there is a conflation of too many issues that do not apply across the board. Some minority groups might be privileged in certain ways, while disadvantaged in others. For example, an upper-middle-class gay male will still enjoy advantages if he is white and male, though he may face discrimination for his sexual orientation, as we can see with dynamic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Indians in America are the most economically successful minority group in the country and are highly educated; however, we have a different skin color, and most of us do not practice the mainstream religion of Christianity, so we may experience discrimination in ways that other minority groups do not.

-Many minorities are of immigrant origin and have opted to come to the United States. So, their narratives are not necessarily one of oppression as they would be for other groups who were brought here against their will, or who were already here and exterminated through genocide.

-Hostility and anger will get us nowhere. Work in constructive, positive ways. Build bridges, find allies.

We still have a long way to go with healing a lot of rifts and divides in American society. But hopefully these questions can help foster peace, communication, and constructive action.

Do We Need Silicon Valley Anymore?

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful place between a blue bay and a big, cold magnificent ocean. There were lots of trees and mountains, and before the white man converted or killed them off, lots of Native Americans. Over time, this beautiful place was settled, and a robber baron who made his fortune in railroads built a university with striking Italian-Spanish architecture in honor of his only son who died as a teenager. The climate was such that brilliant innovative scientists were able to build and create various technologies, such as silicon chips, which were used inside amazing new devices. There were two guys who built a company in a garage, and then a company that hyphenated their last names together. Then later, two guys named Steve radically created a computer that would become a household name, called after a common fruit. One of the Steves even took it further, and, along with a team of brilliant innovative scientists, created devices that people could use to listen to music wherever they wanted, telephones that allowed people to do more than talk, and invented screens that would respond to you at the mere touch of a finger. There were programs on these computers that allowed you to search for any information in the world without having to set foot in the library. And there were still more people who invented, designed, created, and innovated all kinds of tools that human beings used to change their lives. It made the place between the blue bay and the big, cold magnificent ocean attractive to all kinds of interesting people from all over the world.

And then what happened?

I would argue that Silicon Valley’s social capital or utility can be represented by a diminishing returns curve. With the heyday of hardware and even beginning stages of software, Silicon Valley was at the peak of the curve. But now, are there are more social problems and negative impacts on society than benefits?

The San Francisco area has always been prone to earthquakes, as well as a “gold rush” get rich quick mentality. The area is also, on a positive note, one of the most open-minded places in the world. It has been a haven for people of all shapes and sizes and beliefs. No matter who you are, you can be yourself there. If you have new ideas and are forward thinking, you are especially welcome: this is quite novel, when you think about how stodgy and traditional other parts of the country – and the world — can be. Nature is everywhere, from magnificent redwoods to open hills to water on all sides. And when so much of United States suffers from extreme climates, a place with year-round temperate weather is a welcome haven. Of course such an area would be in demand!

But over the past two decades, there has been a shift from hardware and physical goods produced to software and non-tangible technologies, such as websites and apps. Social media is the name of the game. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can comment that the impact of this shift in technology seems to be not extremely socially useful. Yes, governments and businesses use Facebook. Yes, Twitter was instrumental in the Arab Spring. Social media can potentially unite people, enabling a grandparent in India to see their grandchild on FaceTime, or a long-lost friend to be found after half a century. We all want more ease in our lives, and apps can certainly do that. But we must ask ourselves, what is the social value of this software or social media? How much of it is truly life- saving or life-changing? Is Instagram really there to change our lives? Do we really need an app to tell us where to eat, what to wear, which way to swipe if someone is “hot,” where to get the best price on that frivolous knick-knack we want but don’t need? What is the purpose of “social media” anyhow, when really we should be spending time communicating with each other directly?

Consider the following. The sharp rise in the IT industry has driven up the cost of real estate, driving out residents who have lived in their homes for decades, or working poor or immigrants from their apartments (by the evil Trion Properties private equity firm), as was reported recently in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/21/silicon-valley-eviction-facebook-trion-properties
Gentrification has made San Francisco unaffordable, and rent control seems to be a thing of the past. San Francisco has almost become the most expensive city in the U.S. (just closely behind New York).

Diversity is also lessening, both ethnically and economically, as only the elite professionals (often white and middle- or upper-middle class, from Ivy League schools or at least well-educated) can afford to buy or even rent property. With such an imbalance in careers, those who work in other fields, such as education and the arts, whose services are crucial to society (such as the children of these IT people) flee the area. There is also a gender imbalance, leading San Jose to be dubbed “Man Jose” due to the high proportion of men there. But this goes beyond mere physical gender: this is an imbalance of masculine energy and traits, and that which is uniquely or traditionally feminine (be it careers or personality qualities) is diminished. The high rollers in Silicon Valley are not social workers or ballet dancers, and women who want to succeed need to play like a man. Recall Marissa Mayer’s telecommuting ban at Yahoo. This is no surprise when a female CEO is very cold and masculine (I have it on inside authority).

There is also the lesser-important issue of how the tech industry has effected language change. Text English is its own dialect, and auto correct has all but eliminated the need for young people to learn proper grammar and spelling. Do people know how to use your vs. you’re? Everything is reduced to an abbreviation, a single syllable, a precious, clever spelling change (lift with a y for a ride service). Have any of these techno-geeks studied philology? Linguistics? Their sense of history seems to be in years, not even decades and certainly not centuries or millennia. And let’s not even get into how children’s cognitive development is going to be affected a decade later.

What we have here is a population of people that is social and morally underdeveloped with too much money, no history, no ethics or taste. They lack the sense of psychosocial development that comes with learning slowly and with understanding society and culture and history, how to handle money, and how to deal with people. How laughable was Mark Zuckerberg’s 2015 declaration on his Facebook page that: “My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” Apparently, his Harvard education had been wasted until then. If this is the type of citizens top universities are churning out – shortsighted, tech-focused, money-grubbing students – maybe it’s time for them to reevaluate. One retired Stanford professor told me “Silicon Valley is like a cancer on Stanford.” Or conversely, Stanford has become the handmaiden of Silicon Valley.

There is nothing wrong with technology and innovation. We are all on the social media grid, so to speak, all use our smartphones and rely on our computers. The problem comes if there is an imbalance, and if the traditional elements of education are cut, and when people become greedy and exploit, however unknowingly, others. Oddly, there was huge support for Bernie Sanders when he was seeking the nomination for Democratic Candidate for President. This is all good and well, but these people need to be personally fighting for justice for the underprivileged in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, not allowing rents to be raised exorbitantly and traditions to be destroyed. In other words, they need to be equally concerned with creating social capital and solving social problems. Unfortunately, there is no app for that.