Some years back, Oprah (IIRC) did a show on cops and police corruption. During the debate, one cop got up and said something to the effect of “10 percent of cops are completely incorruptible. 10 percent of cops are no better than crooks. The other 80 percent can go either way, depending on which 10 percent they’re working with.”
I heard that and thought at once that there’s a lot of truth to it (not necessarily the specific percentages). Not just for cops, but for people in general.
Some people, really try to do the right thing, consistently. They protest. They speak the truth to power. They’re activists or political prisoners. They’re the people who don’t sexually harass their coworkers or customers and don’t cover it up when someone else does. If they screw up, they try to do better next time. They walk the walk. They prove we can be better. Nelson Mandela. Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Captain Ian Fishback, who blew the whistle on prisoner abuse in Iraq after he couldn’t get any action or guidance from his superiors. Conversely, some people are Harvey Weinstein or rapist cop Daniel Holzclaw. They seem to have been rotten to the core.
I have no trouble believing the behaviors the 20 percent model can influence the other 80 percent. It’s a limited influence because the 80 percent aren’t just sheeple. They have their own standards, their own inclinations and a lot depends on circumstances. If an organization shows it doesn’t give a damn about harassment, punishes whistleblowers or covers up for valued employees, that can outweigh the guy in the next cubicle being upright and principled. If the good 10 percent are fired, mocked or sent to prison camps, lots of people won’t want to emulate them. I still think setting a good example (corny as it sounds) matter (quite aside from the fact that doing the right thing is important in itself).
Here’s a convoluted counter-example. A couple of days after 9/11 I donated blood. I’d never seen the donation center so packed. After 9/11 people were eager to do something, to help, to volunteer. W could have encouraged them; instead he encouraged everyone to go back to their everyday lives and maybe shop to boost the economy (I hate that idea). I assume W figured the less he asked, the happier he’d be with the war, but I think it was a bad call. People were ready to do stuff; our leader said don’t bother. Some of them may have done it anyway, but a call to action could have inspired more. Of course W ducked the draft by joining the National Guard, then blew off his Guard service, so I don’t know that public-spiritedness ranks very high in his pantheon of virtues.
A related point is that what we do can have unanticipated consequences. For an example, read this Slacktivist post about the Satanic panic of 30 years back and how Mike Warnke, fake reformed Satanist (the fakery was pretending he’d ever been a Satanist). Warnke’s Satanist shtick was pure huckstering, promoting a book (The Satan Seller) to conservative Christians eager to hear lurid stories from someone who was now safely good and reformed (an eagerness hardly unique to the religious right). It had horrifying effects: prosecutors and cops informed about the rising tide of Satanism threatening their communities looked to The Satan Seller as a nonfiction resource. His self-serving lie had ugly consequences for others; some attorneys cited his account as proof that Satanists engaged in human sacrifice was a thing. It wasn’t a deciding factor, I’m sure, but it didn’t help.
Conversely, as Vaclav Havel put it, “even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.”
We don’t have to figure out every possible outcome of our action before we take them. Unlike the book I read a while back (I forgot the title) where someone said saving a life was wrong unless you were sure it would work out for the best, it’s okay to act on a best guess. Havel’s decision to be a dissident rather than collaborate with Czech communist rule was a morally sound one. Warnke’s lies weren’t, even though he couldn’t have known how much impact they’d have (but he certainly didn’t ‘fess up when that became obvious).
Doing the right thing matters.
Image taken from Arthur Waite Tarot deck
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