Sunday, July 01, 2007

DO THE RIGHT THING


(News-Herald, September 2002)This originally saw the light of day back when contract talks between the school district and the teachers union, of which I was the president, had pretty much ground to a halt. Within a month we were going to be on strike. It was a tough period for writing this column, because I didn't think I could follow my usual approach and simply write about what was on my mind. A little more thought and I found my way around that obstacle...


I am an optimist in some things. For instance, I believe that the vast majority of people always try to do the right thing.

I have known just a handful of what I think of as Bad People, people who knew right from wrong and chose purposefully, deliberately, to do the wrong thing. But almost every person I’ve ever known, I believe, was a person trying to do what, in their own mind, was right. Even the people that I really disagreed with.

Not that Doing the Right Thing is always easy. First you have to settle on what the right thing is, and that can be a good deal of hard work, hard enough that many of us, in our laziest hours, will look for a shortcut. We’ll find an expert to tell us, some authority figure who will do us the favor of telling us what answer is correct, what course is the right one. We’ll sort people into two groups—people who we always agree with and people we think will always be wrong—and then we don’t ever have to actually think about what anyone is saying ever again.

Of course, I’ve never known anyone who was either right or wrong 100% of the time.

But even as people take the lazier route and avoid thinking through the matter of right and wrong in a situation, I still believe they are trying to do what they think is right.

That probably seems like one of the less profound observations that I’ve ever made here, but I think it’s pretty commonly overlooked.

I think it’s more common to believe that those who are taking a position opposite our own are doing so because they are evil or stupid or out to get us, and that mistaken belief makes communication break down in some critical ways.

First, we stop listening. After all, why listen to evil, stupid people who are out to get us? However, my own observation over the years is that if someone has something important to tell me, and they don’t think I’m listening when they just talk, they will scream instead.

Second, we stop talking. After all, why try to explain yourself to evil, stupid people who are out to get you? Unfortunately, the chances that they will understand my concerns and my intentions when I’m not trying to explain myself are slim indeed.

So if other people really are trying to do the right thing, how can their right thing be so different from mine?

Sometimes it’s a matter of different values. For instance, America continues to have trouble finding a common view with some other cultures because we value an individual human life so much more than they do.

Often that differing value system extends to disagreements about The Right Thing itself. This is one of the hardest things about parenting. Virtually every major argument that I’ve ever had with my children (particularly since puberty) has not really been about what The Right Thing is—it has been about whether my idea of The Right Thing would prevail or not.

I have done extensive field research with my children. I have, on so many occasions that I’m ashamed to count them, stopped thinking of them as rational, reasonable human beings who wanted to do what was right as they saw it, and instead viewed them as willfully obtuse, wrongheaded little children who needed to be made to see things my way (AKA “the right way”).

I could say that I was perfectly happy to discuss the matter at hand with them, but what I really meant was that I’d be happy to talk to them just as soon as they acknowledged that I was standing up for what was right and they were being bullheaded for no good reason.

What I have had to learn, and relearn, is that as soon as I could unclench long enough to recognize that they were trying to do what was right as best they could see it, my house stopped feeling like a battlefield. At that point the real search for a Right Way that we could both live with could begin.

Believing that other people want to do the right thing doesn’t cost you a bit. You can still stand up for the right thing, as you see it, just as forcefully as you need to.

In fact, the third mistake is to think that since you’re stupid, evil, and out to get me, I had better not stand up for anything, but just try either to obliterate you or, failing that, pay any price for peace. My mistake here is to think that you are all of the problem, instead of part of the solution.

1 comment:

Mrs.C said...

Mr. Greene:

Like all the links on your site to previous FHS alumni and some other interesting sites. Thanks!

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