THE INERTIA OF THE FORTUNATE
My friend, Ken Anderson, called and lamented about the lack of response in his church to his reminders of injustice and prejudice that still abound in upstate New York where he lives. Was it some sort of racism they harbored, he wondered? I told him I didn’t think so. People who are fortunate and do not encounter prejudice against themselves tend to feel sorry for those who are not so fortunate. This is true if the unfortunates are born with genetic disorders; have premature deaths shifting the family into poverty; or experience illnesses or accidents that render them dependent on others. It is also true if the unfortunates are victims of prejudice for reasons of their religious beliefs or their ethnicity or race. If they could wave a wand everyone would be healthy, have equal opportunities, and would experience no prejudices against them. In this sense they are not racists. But most of humanity prefers inertia to activism. People often require some major upheaval to become active in a cause. The Civil Rights movement was one of those. Watching blacks chased by dogs and hosed down by water or beaten with clubs is not something Americans like. It goes against our sense of fair play. Similarly women revolted and stopped being doormats to their husbands and fathers and wanted their daughters to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and corporate executives like their male family members. They shamed men into accepting that equality of opportunity.
We revere the leaders of these movements. They would not have happened without the Martin Luther Kings and Betty Friedans and hundreds of their supporters who became active to bring about change. Inertia rules until it is challenged. The handicapped need their Kennedys who can force public attention on their needs. Most of us are not leaders and even when nudged we feel uncomfortable taking on such roles. Some have other causes that occupy their lives. When I was reading Muller’s letters for his biography I was startled by the number of organizations and individuals pleading for Muller (a Nobel laureate) to lend his name to their cause or to speak on their behalf or write articles for their cause. In one of his responses he pointed out that if he agreed to do so for all who wrote, he would diminish his effectiveness in his major concern of radiation protection in health, industry, and the threat of military use of atomic weapons. Muller was not prejudiced against those other causes. He believed in them, but could not make the time commitments demanded of him. This is why leadership is so important. Gifted people have to stir the consciences of the inert. They must have the insights and talents to shift priorities from back burners to a more active awareness. Most of us lack those abilities. We make at best incremental changes by our own attitudes and by minimalist support by writing a check to an organization or sending a contribution to a politician who represents our views. If we see wrong and say nothing or do nothing at all, then we are moral cowards. But even a simple remark to others that members of all religions, races, and ethnic groups deserve our respect as human beings goes a long way to changing generations of indifference or prejudice. Sometimes it is more effective to galvanize those already sympathetic to a cause than to move the inert and seek leadership from them.