Thursday, March 2, 2017

Heroes or Goats?

Like a lot of us, I was watching the Oscars Sunday night. I saw the Great Mistake in the announcement of the winner for Best Picture, and while it was just one moment, it set me down a winding, philosophical path.

NOT, as one commenter put it, “Don’t let the 80-year-olds do it anymore.” In my sympathetic Third Third, I think, “That could have been me,” and I cringe at the jump in people’s minds to feebleness. I felt bad for Warren Beatty; the whole thing did made him look feeble and confused. He had a reason to be confused (so he passed the problem to Faye Dunaway).
My friend Steve focused on something else: he marveled at the graciousness on display:
“The mistake was acknowledged immediately and openly and the response was all so adult, so gracious, so harmonious. … Our news has been so dominated by three-year old tantrums lately, that this is a wonderful relief, and we should all be glad for the error, just to see how decent people behave.”
But my friend Marie had a different take:
“So, if Warren Beatty knew something was wrong, why didn’t he say something? At that moment, he had the opportunity to correct a mistake but didn’t. … Let’s promote taking responsibility where we can. When you see something or feel that something doesn’t feel right, say something.”
That reminded me of an interview I read a long time ago with Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford professor famous for the prison experiment where the “guards” ran amok with their newfound power. He was trying to account for the one person out of 100 who does the right thing.

Zimbardo was once sitting in the front row of a presentation when he noticed the speaker having difficulty, so he interrupted – just before the speaker collapsed. As he puts it:
“Essentially, it’s shame and guilt: you have to live with the guilt of not doing what you should have done vs. the shame of doing the wrong thing. All my life I’ve done things to make people laugh at me, and playing the fool means when the time comes I don’t care if people laugh.”
“…when the time comes, I don’t care if people laugh.” I disagree that you have to “play the fool” to prepare for this, but you do have to prepare yourself. Maybe as pre-teens, we’re too caught up in the fear of ridicule, the pressure of the peer group; but we’re in our Third Thirds now. Are we willing to risk embarrassment? We live in a world of “see something, say something” – are we ready? Can we all do it?

Sometimes I think I was born with a big mouth. Friends might have a hard time thinking of me as “reticent.” Yet I have uncomfortable memories of the times I balked, times I imagined all the eye-rolling I’d get for making a fuss, and so I abdicated. Like Charlie Brown, “I could have been the hero ... instead I’m the goat.”
It comes back to what Marie talked about, taking responsibility and speaking up. Zimbardo calls them “everyday heroes,” the ones who move from passivity to action. We can’t know how we’ll react in an emergency, in confusion, when faced with injustice. We can’t know if we’ll be gracious when a mistake is made.

I’m sure Warren Beatty is kicking himself. We can all take that as a cautionary tale and hope we’re ready when our test comes. But we can’t lose sight of heroes when they do emerge; the La La Land heroes took the microphone and volunteered their congratulations to Moonlight. Yes, they were adult and kind and generous.

I’m practicing my “see something, say something” muscle, right along with my squats.


  1. How inspiring! Thank you for that piece, Barbara! Mia Oxley's presentation on "Asking Questions," one of the many valuable presentations you had put together as part of Leadership Anchorage back in 2006/7, made quite an impression on me. I realized that I came from a culture that did not encourage asking questions. I've since learned about the power of questions - questions not masked as judgement or advice, but questions based on a desire to understand; questions are more transforming than answers. So I'll add, if you see something, say something, or better yet, ask a question!
    Marie Husa

    1. There's no contradiction between Steve's comment and Marie's. Yes, Beatty could have checked on his feeling that something was wrong. But that doesn't mean people's reaction to the gaffe wasn't commendable.
      But not everyone's feelings are reliable, after all 63 million people's feelings caused them to vote for Trump.


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