Can Underdogs Save the World?

I’ve been thinking about this blog post… for months now. What would I say, what would I write? It seemed that everywhere I turned, the subject of peer influence versus ethics has been causing waves in our communities, in our media, in our everyday lives, yet it’s not being connected in the way I see it all connecting.

Police killings going uncharged as homicides

Lenders providing loans to people with unverified incomes

Lack of enforcement on California drought conservation restrictions

Physicians providing unneeded care for profit

Domestic abuse still going strong after all these years

Hollywood’s inability to see that ethnicity is a sensitive topic among historically marginalized groups

Government employees who are afraid to become another Edward Snowden if they speak out against abuses

When was the last time you saw something unethical and stood up to stop it?

If you did not, then the reason, most likely, wasn’t because you’re an ‘evil’ person intending hurt to others. Most likely you’re a normal person who is just following the crowd, fearing to let someone down, maybe fearing to let a lot of people down.

To quote Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And with this platitude, Yoda pretty much sums up the major problems in our collective societies today. But where does this fear come from? It comes from our peers, their expectations of us, their opinions of us, and our own preconceived prejudices of what we should be afraid of.

I’m a Gen-Xer. I grew up in the 1980’s with a firm background in the study of peer pressure. I was never sold drugs or alcohol (until I was old enough). People offered me drugs, but they easily and politely took no for an answer. In fact, I found that I got more pressured to drink later in life than I did to get stoned in college, and nobody ever offered me anything more illegal than pot. Maybe I’m unusual, maybe not, but there’s one thing that I got offered in droves: advice on how to avoid peer pressure. “Say No to DRUGS!” went the campaign. It was plastered all over my high school, we had to attend special events where we learned the dangers of peer pressure. In the end, I realized they were just creating an atmosphere of expectation, that if our peers were saying no to drugs, that those ‘good’ peers would apply enough peer pressure to others that the rate of drug use would decline but my peers and I weren’t really moved by the films and the testimonials. I knew that drugs were bad for me, but there was no emotional connection. I could see prominent members of society snorting coke in movies. Smoking happened everywhere then, and drinking was never mentioned as a drug. The campaign seemed to be politically motivated and designed to prop up Reagan’s war on drugs.

Today we have plenty of meth and crack in the U.S., and the Say No to Drugs campaign had lackluster results. It had to. The people telling me to say no were not my peers, nor were they peers to millions of other youngsters. Instead, we listened to our parents and the people around us. Their perspectives were, shall I say, various.

The Say No to Drugs campaign was very much a ‘think for yourself’ campaign. It tried to get people to bypass peer pressure, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here and say that it would have been better had it tried to use peer pressure as a positive influence, and to constructive a positive culture of health. But the government has issues with people thinking for themselves. It is almost always free thinkers point out the flaws in our systems and bring down prominent ‘successful’ individuals who arrived in their positions unethically, or who use unethical means to get results.

In our modern myths, heroes almost always have to contend with massive amounts of peer pressure. The entire genre of ‘underdog’ stories is based on this concept, and it’s present in our most prominent franchises. The X-Men, Captain America, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Elsa the Ice Queen, Frodo Baggins, Batman, Arrow, Shrek, and Katniss Everdeen are all subject to extraordinary amounts of societal pressure to just give up and not stand up for what they know is right.

It would be easy to look at these successful (in some cases) heroes and say that because we have them in our collective mythologies that standing up for ethical behavior is the thing we encourage in people, but the reason these stories are so successful and engrossing is because they are so unique, because fighting the flow is hard. These heroes have to give up substantial freedoms and potential futures to do the right thing. Katniss pretty much commits an entire country to war, and sees most of her community bombed to ashes. Frodo barely makes it to Mount Doom, then basically gives up on life. Luke Skywalker probably comes out the best–I think he ends up a wandering Jedi or some such (I’m really looking forward to The Force Awakens). Captain America wants to stand up for the rights of supers who want to protect their families from retribution by hiding their identities, and ends up watching his friends die in the resulting Civil War.

The risks of taking a stand aren’t lost on normal humans without super powers. Edward Snowden is only now being redeemed by U.S. courts, and whistle blowers in general get the short stick, being unable to find a job and often face bankruptcy after they leave the companies that have wronged society. Courage is rarely rewarded in today’s world.

But surely, shouldn’t police officers (paragons of virtue, dedicated to the public welfare!) stand up for what is right even when it’s difficult? Frank Serpico is one of the very very few. Has anyone else stood up like he did forty years ago? I haven’t noticed anyone particular, and police shootings of people in suspicious circumstances go largely ignored, especially when the person shot was black. State legislatures are reluctant to buy and use body cameras, even though they apparently are really helpful, and potentially could help good cops to reinforce good decisions just as they would point out bad cops who make poor ones. Because of this lack of oversight and systemic problems, abused communities have started taking action, thus the riots in Baltimore, Oakland, and Ferguson in recent years. There will be more to come unless our police forces take serious stock of their own houses and start behaving like the people we need them to be.

Even health providers are taking advantage of their positions of power (see link above) to suggest unnecessary surgeries and tests that serve mainly to line pockets of providers, not to actually improve the quality of life of the people they have pledged to serve.

In the end all of this bad behavior comes down to peer pressure. Pressure to feed cases to other doctors who then feed cases back to you. Pressure to not rock the boat when some officers are taking bribes, or when they are roughing up captives. Pressure to stay silent when circumventing the law in the hope of catching an elusive bogeyman terrorist. Pressure to make movies like we did last year, because making one that was racially sensitive is just too expensive, and might not be as funny to the general public. Pressure to underwrite a loan or a deal even when the repayment is likely to fail, because you need to make loan volume this month.

This peer pressure has a particularly dark side that can eventually result in police states: dictatorships like Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. where human rights go out the window in favor of doing what is right for the state and the leaders, in the name of not rocking the boat. For every hundred-thousand followers, there might be one Oskar Schindler (maybe), and that is not near enough.

This is something that has irritated me for a long time, and one of the reasons I left Christianity behind. I’m not going to go into my personal choice here, but atheism (not recognizing or following any god) appealed to me because it was my way of saying that I would not succumb to the pressure to believe something that no one can prove exists.

Religions are particularly peer-pressurey (new word, coined here first!). In the Middle East, atheists face a steep climb out of obscurity, even though their obvious non-religious behaviors are tolerated openly. But that’s not where it ends, is it? Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and a host of sects and mini religions out there all try to prop up themselves by putting others down.

What weapon do they use in that battle? Peer pressure, mostly. Some are more violent, true. Those occasions make the news, but the day-to-day influences from media and friends are what really cements the deal. “God bless you,” said when you sneeze. “One nation under God,” in our pledge of allegiance (I’m more than happy to pledge allegiance to do my best to serve my country and the people in it, but not to someone else’s mythical god). Kids required to go to churches where they are subject to more training and pressure.

These tools are endemic in our society, and they are starting to come into the light, but people are still making excuses for them, like the police officers whose cultures have highly imbalanced policing policies that unjustly target black communities.

The world around us is full of ideas, and the people around us are full of advice. Some of that peer-pressurey advice is so culturally accepted that it’s nearly invisible unless you’re consciously looking for it.

There is a way to overcome these issues, but it’s not by eschewing peer pressure. You cannot become an ‘atheist to society’ you cannot help fix problems in lending or policing or health care by dis-believing in them. They exist, they need solutions, and more importantly, they need a positive, caring, compassionate culture.

Building a culture of compassion–essentially a network of peer pressure around treating people well and doing what is right, rewarding people who stand up for injustice–is the only way out of this funk we find ourselves in lately.

Fortunately, there are some companies, both for-profit and non-profit, that are making this a priority. Find out who they are and vote with your cash.

For governments, it’s tougher. Most governments make lots of talk about how ethical they are, but like the U.S. Marines, when push comes to shove, it’s very difficult for a junior officer or enlisted soldier to take a stand against injustice, abuse of power, or poor decision making. They’re trained to take orders, not to challenge, not to think for themselves. Police agencies inherit many of these ideas, because they get lots of recruits from the military, and have similar training policies. How do you combat this in government, police, and military agencies? That’s a tougher question. The leadership needs to come from the top. Mr. President, I’m looking at you, but not just you, I’m also looking at police commissioners, generals, and mayors. The president has taken a stand to allow gays into the military and to build better health care incentives in the Affordable Care Act, but we need lower-level leaders to pick up this baton and carry it even further.

I’m also looking at the public. Can we support leaders in government who have admitted to failure and let them try something new? Can we let them try to build a culture of compassion? Would they even try? I don’t know, but I feel like it’s what we desperately need today.

We need to make peer pressure work for us, not against us.