Thursday, March 11, 2010

Me and Simon Wiesenthal: Compelled To "Commit The Truth" and Be Our Own Person

You've heard of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, I'm sure. There is a famous photograph of the 15-year-old Simon Wiesenthal with his Boy Scout troop, in Poland. The photo was taken in 1923. Wiesenthal refused to wear a uniform, like the other boys.

When I was a 5-year-old boy, in kindergarten, my class undertook a project. Our teacher, Miss Perry, had the class make costumes that we would wear at a school assembly program to be held in the auditorium. I didn't want to participate. Miss Perry said to me: "Gary, you'll have to be on stage with everybody else, even if you don't make a costume. Don't you want to dress up like all the other boys and girls?" Well, quite frankly, I didn't. I didn't want to make a costume. I didn't want to wear a costume. At an early age I didn't want to be like everybody else.

My neighbor, Barbara Stein -- now Barbara Stein Abrams -- who was six years my senior, used to walk me home from elementary school. She was in the audience the day my kindergarten class gave its presentation in assembly. When Barbara Stein picked me up after school that day she berated me: "Why weren't you wearing a costume like everybody else?"

I never do what other people do. I don't goose-step. I never have. I don't just "go along."

My psychiatrist has counseled me to "let go" of my anger. Dr. Jama believes that it is anger that drives my behavior toward and thinking about my former employer, the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

But is it simply anger that drives my behavior and thinking? When I was in kindergarten, was I angry with someone? Is that why I, like the teenage Simon Wiesenthal, refused to relinquish his personal identity and assume a group identity?

I think the issue of my preoccupation with my former employer is complex, and rooted in numerous personality trends.

I believe that an important personality trend that Simon Wiesenthal and I share is a strong sense of "moral narcissism."

"NARCISSISM MORALIZED" is C. Fred Alford's provocative term to explain why whistleblowers do what they do. "Whistleblowers blow the whistle because they dread living with the corrupted self more than they dread living in isolation from others," he writes in Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, his 10th book of moral psychology. With this concept, Alford sets aside the pathological definition of narcissism—-which includes as its well-known features exploitation of others and lack of empathy—-and instead puts whistleblowers in such exalted company as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Moral narcissists strive to live up to their "ego ideal," as Freud would have it, rather than lower the ideal and say to themselves, consciously or not, "Well, I'm just going to go to work every day and go along," Alford argues. He came to the notion after sitting in on a whistleblower support group for a year, eavesdropping at a retreat for stressed-out whistleblowers, and interviewing 24 more in depth. The only force strong enough to make whistleblowers blow and keep blowing, despite mounting psychological and financial costs (most studies show about two-thirds lose their jobs and many never return to their original fields), is narcissistic rage. "Look what you've done to my moral purity!" the whistleblower's heart cries.

"Whistleblowers are not necessarily people I'd want to have a beer with," says Alford, a University of Maryland political scientist and the author of a fascinating book that applies psychological theory to whistleblowers' experiences. "There is almost by definition something a little unsocialized about the true believer, as I like to call them." Or even, in our go-along-to-get-along society, something a little scary. As one whistleblower told Alford, we're all afraid of people who feel compelled to "commit the truth."

Like Monica Lewinsky, I plan to "blow and keep blowing."

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

Like Monica Lewinsky, I plan to "blow and keep blowing."

An Akin Gump joke that is funny on so many levels!