Scapegoating and Truthtelling

When stressed we seek both relief and

It is an embarassing
tragedy to see a
departure from our
nation’s historic
leadership as a
champion of
human rights.
–Pres. Jimmy Carter

To read former President Jimmy Carter’s latest book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, is a worrisome exercise. President Carter writes that religious fundamentalists and political conservatives now in power are turning away from historic values that have made the U.S. a beacon of hope for human rights and open society. Echoing a concern raised by former Senator and Episcopal priest, John Danforth, the President says, “Narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.” (p 3)

“The influence of these various trends poses a threat to many of our nation’s historic customs and moral commitments, both in government and in houses of worship,” he writes. (p. 3)

…there are
three words
that characterize
this brand of
and exclusion.
–Pres. Jimmy Carter

Pres. Carter says political leaders who do not promote economic and social justice, human rights, protection of the environment, alleviation of human suffering and global cooperation are creating a moral crisis that puts the nation at risk. He writes of the hot button issues of homosexuality, evolution and abortion, among others, noting that fundamentalists “have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree.” (p.3)

He relates firsthand experience with the takeover of the South Baptist Convention by fundamentalist leaders, many of whom today are on familiar terms with the White House and Congressional leaders. He has left the Convention and is sharply critical of the new fundamentalism. He says, “…there are three words that characterize this brand of fundamentalism: rigidity, domination, and exclusion.” (p. 35)

In posts preceding this I’ve cited Ronald A. Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers), who says conflicting values create stress. Heifetz’s theories about stress and Pres. Carter’s view of our moral crisis are more compatible than divergent.

When the stress gets too heavy we seek relief. Unfortunately, easing stress can sometimes mean diverting attention away from substantial challenges. It can mean scapegoating the less powerful in a society, for example.

The most blatant example I’ve seen is the killing of the children of the poor in Brazil. Families in the most wretched poverty in Brazilian cities live literally from hand to mouth. Often adults lack the most basic skills necessary to enter the job market and they have no financial resources to fall back on. They live in rag-tag settlements perched precariously on steep hillsides with no sewers, often lacking running water and virtually no basic services.

These neighborhoods breed crime, disease, violence and addiction. It takes heroic effort to survive such conditions and escape them.

In desperation, some families send children to the streets to beg. Other children run away from abusive situations. Still others, seeing no future in the shanty towns known as favellas, take to the streets and return only occasionally to the family.

The children get involved in drugs, theft and other illegal behavior. They are products of an economy that is failing to include all the people. It’s a difficult, complex dilemma but scapegoating children doesn’t solve it.

In fact, scapegoating the demeaned and devalued takes attention from the more significant problems that must be changed if the society is to improve in the long-term. This is the risk in focusing on hot button issues. Heifetz says the leaders–those in positions of authority and those with informal authority–must provide a “holding environment” that encourages the society to deal with values in conflict. President Carter is suggesting that, in fact, leaders with formal authority today are not providing this kind of leadership. Instead, too many are encouraging and enabling scapegoating, and that puts us all at risk.

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