There’s lots of reasons why you might not want to take a stand against something wrong. You’ll be criticized, ignored, hushed. You’ll make people uncomfortable. I highlighted a few of them in last week’s post. But today’s reason to stay quiet deserves a paragraph or two of its own:
9. You Will Face Obstacles.
You’ll encounter obstacles of every type once you decide to stand up to wrong things. You will be frustrated. Tired. Annoyed. Expect it. Don’t speak up if you are easily discouraged. But real change or action can happen if you’re willing to push through those obstacles. With momentum, research, facts, help from others … with some stick-to-itiveness, you can make a difference. You’ll need to recognize these roadblocks when they appear, so here’s an initial list (focused on mostly on public agencies as the obstacles) to help you get started:
● Gatekeepers. These are the people who manage access to the real decision makers. They filter what information gets through, as well as who gets that access. They can be effective in stopping those easily derailed. These are the people you must get through to get to the key decision makers.
What do they look like? Why do they exist?
The gatekeeper might be the receptionist who will simply take down your name and number. That person will (he or she says) pass along your message to the person in charge. This gatekeeper typically won’t have the contact information for the person in charge. If you press for access, that person will likely hand you off to a low-level supervisor who also doesn’t have the person-in-charge’s direct contact information.
The gatekeeper might be a call center representative who has no real knowledge of or contact with the decision makers or their gatekeepers. The “gatekeeper” might not be a real person. Instead, it’s a voicemail system that won’t enable you to connect with an actual person, thus forcing you to leave a message or work your way through the next level of live gatekeepers. The gatekeeper might be an assistant or aide to the person in charge.
Whatever the arrangement, there are certainly legitimate reasons for these gatekeepers. The decision makers, after all, need to get work done and can’t be answering the phone all day. Sometimes there are security concerns. Gatekeepers keep “unstable” (more on that later) or threatening people at bay. Often the decision makers need the gatekeepers to gather more detailed information before the decision maker can get involved. Fair enough.
What these gatekeepers cannot do, however, is stop you from ultimately reaching your public officials or political representatives with a legitimate concern.
You need to recognize who is the gatekeeper and who is the decision maker, and then be persistent, firm, and polite in getting through to the person in charge. It might mean that you place several calls and leave a detailed message. You then follow up with a letter in which you mention those calls. You might need to make an appointment, or request a formal meeting. Whatever you do, don’t let the gatekeepers block access to the person with whom you need to connect.
● Skepticism. The agencies in charge of our safety and protection are understandably skeptical of the average citizen calling with a concern. (Note: unless you are employed by that or a related agency, or are a medical doctor, you are an “average citizen” even if you have private training, education, or experience in the field in which you are raising a concern.) The “average person” might not understand what he’s observing or might raise questions where there’s really no concern. Moreover, there are many types of people in the world, and some of them have an offbeat, skewed, or even seriously unstable view of the world. People suffer with mental illness, delusions, or paranoia. But does that mean we ignore what people say? Do we dismiss the unusual perspective that someone might offer?
Let’s listen to people, even when some of the things they say might be far-fetched or outright delusional. Let’s try to hear the underlying issue, even if their interpretation of what they’ve observed is off. Where reasonable, let’s follow up on the things we’re hearing repeatedly. People matter, and so should their observations.
● Partial Answers. These are answers that give you only part of the story. The problem is, most people don’t know enough to know that they’re getting only part of the story. Here’s an example. Let’s say a piece of land has been polluted by five different companies, the military, and the state government. The average citizen might call and agency to ask whether testing was done, and what the results of that testing show. An agency might point out that tests of the property show that two contaminants are on the property that are attributable to the state. That response might satisfy the average person, but the average person doesn’t know that other polluters might be at fault, or that other contaminants aren’t on the property.
Sometimes officials don’t know all the answers. Sometimes a public official will provide a fact-specific piece of information that, while true, is only a small slice of the picture. These official-sounding nuggets might be an attempt to mollify you. Don’t stop there. Press public officials for information. Ask them for the big picture. You must dig deeper – were tests done to allow the official to provide that information? If so, what tests and what sources did the official use to provide that information? Who did the underlying testing? Was it the wrongdoer? Where can you review it for yourself? When was that study or report prepared and what information was taken into account? Does it include the specific concerns that you are bringing to the table? Confirm all information you are given.
Then, research what others have to say about that information. If you are still concerned, run it by any expert willing to give you some time and expertise. Educate yourself about the underlying problem. Start reading technical summaries or bulletins so that you can better understand the lingo being used when you do follow up with both agencies and others. Ask yourself, does this information make sense?
● Bureaucracy … or Foot-dragging. Agencies charged with your protection move slowly. They rely upon an established protocol, or an increasingly serious set of responses before they move to the next level. This makes sense on several levels. We don’t want public officials throwing money at every citizen’s concern without there being some type of justification. You must, however, make sure that the process is moving forward. That the next person in the level of command is aware of your concern and is investigating. That the proper departments have been notified. The bureaucratic process cannot become the obstacle. That amounts to a wrong larger than the one you’re trying to address.
● Unreasonable Insistence Upon Formalities or Follow-Up Documentation. Before Anything is Done. When you decide to research or challenge something of concern, you’ll often be asked for documentation, surveys, records, or other things that the average person doesn’t have--or have the time to compile. Do not allow any agency to use your failure to provide this information as an excuse for them not following up. When you raise a concern, there should be activity on both ends, and agency activity cannot be dependent upon a formality on your end before something is done.
● Shaming. You’ve heard of dog shaming, passenger shaming, and body shaming. Here’s another one to add to the list: voice shaming. Voice shaming can be accomplished by threatening a person’s certification to perform the work they do to make a living. It can be accomplished by publicly undermining a person’s credibility. It can be accomplished by disrespectful treatment or attempts to embarrass the person who is attempting to speak up. For example, let’s say a person makes an appointment to speak over the telephone with a decision maker. The person isn’t told that thirteen people are on the other end of the line, all armed with technical questions for which the person is not prepared. This is an effective technique for shutting people down who are trying to stand up to wrong things.
● Lack of a Moral Compass. We cannot simply say that “IRS is corrupt,” or that the “Government is evil.” Let’s face it: when wrong things happen, someone along the way chose to act badly. Individuals choose to lie or withhold information. Individuals choose not to follow up on concerns raised by the public. Individuals make the wrong-headed agency decisions that harm others. Individuals set the tone of leadership. And individuals should be held accountable when things go wrong.
Sometimes wrongdoers forget that they have a moral responsibility towards others. They forget that they are called to serve others. They forget that people matter. Call it morality or call it faith, but the individuals who comprise our government agencies are called to do good towards others, and not harm them.
Here’s where the obstacle rears its head: when morally-bankrupt individuals realize that they have failed to protect people, those individuals will lie. They will cover their tracks, save their hide, or blame others. They will make things difficult for those trying to expose them. Don’t let someone else’s lack of a moral compass stand as an obstacle to your standing against wrong things.
Next week – PLOW THROUGH: Specific Ways to Work Around Obstacles … a How-To Guide.