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?!

It’s Not Just White vs. Non-White: It’s Powerful vs. Powerless

The old guard Republican senator who keeps getting reelected. The Chinese real estate tycoon buying up property after property in the US, speculating, therefore causing the price of housing to become exorbitant and unaffordable – and he doesn’t even live in the the country. The lawyers in the firm that has too long a name because they have to include everyone who made partner. The entertainment star, a household name, who bullies her staff and pays them too little despite being one of the highest earners in the world. The magazine editor who promotes Eastern European teenage anorexia-chic as the ideal body image, and so Madison Ave sweeps up her aesthetic and spreads it around the globe. The Black man who headed a leading health insurance company (though 12% of Black Americans are still uninsured, according to the Kaiser Foundation) that is now headed by a man who himself endured serious injuries and feels sympathetic to customers, but the company pulled out of the healthcare exchange in many states. The tech CEO who reveals publicly his homosexuality with the hopes of encouraging others to feel it is ok, but heads a multi-billion dollar company that exploits workers overseas.

See a pattern here?

It is power. Or rather, the abuse of power, the misuse of power, by people who have too much. And this, like any sort of psychiatric pathology, cuts across cultures. Granted, we have to indeed admit and work on the sad fact that minorities face disproportionate discrimination in America, and the statistics don’t lie. A Black male has much lower odds of succeeding – even surviving – in this culture compared to his white counterparts. This intersection of class (meaning a disempowered class) and race is a continuing problem that we have seen increase over the years, and now it is heightened under the Trump regime. We cannot ignore race, especially as racial tensions and violence are increasing.

But if we look at race alone, we are not seeing the rest of the problem. We need to start looking more at class and disempowerment. This angle will allow us to see what we had been neglecting for years: disempowered white people, often from Appalachia or rural areas (the very voters who elected Trump, even after electing Obama). It will allow us to have more constructive dialogues about class and power. A white male running a Wall Street bank is not the same white male who’s a third-generation Polish immigrant working in an auto plant in Detroit. Asian minorities who are highly educated and well to do, living in wealthy suburbs, are not the same as inner city Asian minorities (such as Chinese in Chinatowns) or Asians who grew up in more rural or less-populated areas. I noticed this difference when I went to Stanford: I came from a small Midwest college town, from very modest means, the daughter of a professor, compared to most other Indian-Americans who were wealthy and from big city suburbs.

American society is becoming increasingly, and alarmingly, class-stratified. This is the elephant in the room that drives the problems that then get played out in race. We often talk about racism and racial violence, but we don’t talk enough about poverty. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that people at or below the poverty level have more than twice the rate of violent victimization as people in high-income households (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/hpnvv0812.pdf). How much more proof do we need?

Political crusaders like Bernie Sanders have fought hard to address this problem. So have grassroots movements like Occupy. But still, too many Americans suffer not only from poverty, but powerlessness. We are forced to pay exorbitant fees, deal with unjust financial institutions, be cheated by our healthcare system, and receive no basic benefits such as maternity leave or quality education. The message from the last election is clear: both sides, the left and the right, are powerless compared to those who are controlling the institutions in our country.

The difference is, those who elected Trump failed to realize that social change has to happen systematically and institutionally, not willy-nilly by a madman with no political experience, who says what people want to hear in the worst manner of a demagogue. And thus, not only are the anti-Trump people disempowered by those in control – we also are also suffering from disempowerment by those who elected Trump, people who have no understanding of how to effect social change.