Search This Blog

A Declaration for Independence

I was in the airport, coming down the escalator, when I heard a loud THWACK.

Even if it was nothing, I couldn’t just ignore the sound. I am one of those people for whom the prospect of another 9/11 is more likelihood than remote possibility. So I scanned the area, slightly worried.

Fortunately, it didn’t indicate anything dangerous – no terrorist attack here. But the scene was still disturbing: A family meltdown, loud and carried on right in front of an entire Transportation Security Administration security line.

There, just beyond the escalator, on the right, was the mother. She was pulling the handles of a shopping bag apart and peering inside, her face gnarled in fury. In front of her was the daughter, looking up at mom with a combination of shock and fear on her face. I could see the child’s mouth forming a little O, and hear her piercing screams: “Mommy, Mommy, why did you do that?”

What I (and the rest of the TSA line apparently, judging from the stares and the disapproving comments) had heard was the daughter getting smacked for breaking something valuable.

I tried not to be obvious, but was transfixed by the emotional train wreck. For about a minute, the mother seemed not to hear or even for that matter see her child at all. And then, seemingly out of the blue, she yelled, “Shut up. And be QUIET!!!” Not noticing that she had said the same thing twice. Oblivious to what her child was feeling.

Clearly, public disagreements and embarrassing scenes happen all the time in our society. So what is it that so affected me about this one? On reflection, it’s the child’s utter helplessness, and silencing, in the face of her legitimate need to be heard. It’s the staple of the daytime talkshows: children who seem to be acting “badly,” until we learn that there is some legitimate cause for their pain that would not have been discovered otherwise.

Another story now – but the same theme: The inability of an individual to speak a negative reality – with devastatingly costly consequences. Summary reposted below from Tom Peters’ blog; original article from The New York Times:

“Quote from an ex-Senior Vice President, Ken Linton, who evaluated mortgage quality as a prelude to securitization, and smelled a rat early—or at least a rotting mouse: ‘You are not paid to rock the boat.”

If you have a moment, read the story in full. The worst thing about this, to my mind, wasn’t that Linton was obstructed from speaking. Rather, reports The Times, he had internalized a culture of strict compliance with the status quo:

“He recalls vividly the days in early 2007 at Lehman when his financial models began to throw up more warnings showing delinquencies and defaults, and he remembers colleagues on his desk raising questions about loan quality. But he said the firm’s ranking as the top loan originator on Wall Street, not to mention the pressures put on the desk by Lehman’s growth-obsessed leadership, made it difficult for even the most senior executives to raise questions, even a senior vice president like Mr. Linton.”

Think about that. Linton saw it coming and could even have stopped it before it hit – or perhaps might have minimized some of the damage. But he was so well-indoctrinated as to the value of compliance that he kept his mouth shut. And as a result, our financial losses have now run into the trillions. (Too many sources, with varying numbers, to cite, but there seems to be general consensus on the “trillions” part.)

Going back to present day now, to the experience of children—what do they really learn at school? Let’s not even count daycare or graduate education, just the standard first through twelfth grade. What is the subliminal message of a dozen formative years spent mostly sitting, listening, memorizing, and “spitting back,” all aimed at winning a series of numerical scores?

Sure, some individuality is thrown in. After all, they have to write essays, right? Well, yes, providing that their grammar is good enough, the margins are correct, they follow the style guide for footnotes and the bibliography, and that they write enough words (a requirement I’ve never understood given the tendency of writers to say much too much without ever really saying anything at all).

And it is true that good colleges prefer applicants who have done something besides achieve top grades—although mostly that’s because so many kids get top grades that it’s hard to tell them apart unless you use extracurricular activities as a yardstick.

Anyway, by and large, it is the obedient child, the child who embraces the status quo, who is considered baseline “good enough.”

You don’t have to be Dr. Phil to look at all this and see that no matter how pluralistic the United States is today – and we are blessed with an amazingly diverse society, no question – we still have a long way to go in terms of embracing nonconformists – people whose thoughts or feelings challenge the status quo.

I’m not talking about uncritically accepting illness or criminal deviance as normal, nor am I suggesting that anarchy reign. Rather, I am suggesting that we can do much more to foster a society whose major institutions proactively reward individuality, creativity, and innovation. In this kind of society, children and adults are empowered at every level and in every setting to speak up, get engaged, and contribute their thoughts and ideas to the goings on around them.

Isn’t this kind of independence the spirit on which the United States itself was founded?

Many people dream of a perfect world – one without war, disease, hunger, or any other kind of human suffering. I know I do. With the help of G-d, and fueled by determination and the courage to tolerate risk and change, I believe that we can empower ourselves, and our national community, to create it. The only thing standing in the way is our will. Let us encourage – not just tolerate – diversity, creativity, and out-of-the box thinking. Not for their own sake, but for the sake of promoting maximum health in ourselves, our relationships, our social institutions, and our planet.


All opinions my own. Please feel free to repost.