June 27, 2008

The evil of doing nothing

There is a famously misquoted saying attributed to Edmund Burke, which refers to the price that must be paid when "good men do nothing".

Consider these news reports from the last few weeks:
  • NSW, yesterday. A man and his three children were found dead in their own driveway. According to neighbours, it was well-known in the area that the family had problems.
  • Queensland, last week. The bodies of twin babies were discovered by a young sibling, a week after their deaths from apparent torture and starvation. Neighbours "didn't want to report" that other children from the family were often wandering the street naked and asking for food.
  • South Australia, this week. Several children are seriously ill in hospital after police raided two homes where up to 20 children from two families were living in squalor. Neighbours said they had often seen young children in heavily soiled nappies playing outside late at night as adults came and went.
It's not just Australia, of course.
"Why didn't somebody say something?" 

I certainly don't have the answer, which is undoubtedly different in each of the above situations, but as a society we are not at all supportive of individuals who try to report something unusual or suspicious. Such reports disturb the equilibrium of our lives, and frequently raise issues that most of us prefer not to think about. Consequently, it is much easier for these individual concerns to be dismissed as "fanciful", "none of their business", "exaggerated", or even "malicious". 

The equivalent situation within companies and organisations is that of the whistleblower:
"Whistleblowers are usually ordinary people ... who take huge professional and personal risks to blow the whistle on corporate and governmental wrongdoing. ... They are generally harassed, vilified, and fired or forced to resign."
I have been in that situation myself, and it is extremely unpleasant. While there may be some sense of satisfaction at the concerns subsequently being justified, it does not diminish the distressing consequences of speaking out. Just recently, a friend of mine spent a good deal of time deciding whether or not to mention his concerns about a potentially damaging situation in the management team of a large organisation. Having seen the very negative reaction to similar whistleblowing in the past, he tried to formulate his concerns as a polite question, but unfortunately the response was as dramatic as if he had made a direct accusation.
It doesn't seem to matter how it is done, the consequences are nearly always unpleasant for the innocent person making the report.

So it is not surprising that individuals are reluctant to raise the possibility of something unpleasant, when society in general reacts in such an unfortunate way. We are very quick to criticise the neighbours in each of the above news items, but how many of us can be sure that we would be prepared to risk hostility, ridicule, retribution or social isolation by speaking out?

Which brings us back to the quotation mentioned at the start:
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

1 comment:

KC said...

Aww don't depress me like that.


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