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Ass By Association

October 29, 2010

When Schindler’s List came out, and everyone was going on about what a groundbreaking movie it was, I was apathetically unimpressed. It didn’t seem like anything special to me. We already KNEW Hitler was a monster, we already knew that unspeakable horrors were perpetrated on innocent people, we already knew that this would scar civilization forever. What we didn’t know is how it happened. Hitler didn’t do this alone, millions of people helped him. I wanted THAT story. I wanted to know how some person could be convinced to work for his fear-mongoring-hate-machine-of-death in any way – from joining the SS to sewing the uniforms. I wanted to know how the knowledge that you helped Hitler shaped the rest of your life. That’s the story. That’s what we needed to discuss.

One of my favorite quotes is (never officially attributed and probably a “summing up” of sentiments rather than an actual quote) by Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because, to me, the countless people who let the handful of “bad” people get away with things seem like a far greater problem. (After all, if you toss out the one bad apple, the rest of the barrel is fine. If you don’t, they all start to rot.) Hitler was an asshole extraordinaire, but it took a lot of help to do what he did. What if no one had helped him?

I don’t know Hitler, or anyone like him, thankfully. But he is a safe and hyperbolic symbol of something that we need to discuss. It matters when kids are committing suicide because no one taught bullies not to bully. It matters when people are being swindled because no one called the swindlers on their shit. It matters when people are simply treated badly and the bad treatment is allowed to continue because there are no repercussions to the perpetrators. Even in ways that seem silly, because these things grow, silently, until they become the norm.

In the past few months, I’ve been privy to some pretty appalling behavior by a handful of people. As appalled as I have been by the perpetrators, I have actually found myself far more frustrated by the people who will, to me and others, talk about how appalled they are by the behavior, but not change their interactions with the people who did it, at all. They don’t have the will (courage? integrity?) to say, “that behavior was appalling, and I am not sure I want people in my life who can behave that way.” Instead, status quo is supported, and they “get away with it.”

It’s taken me a while to figure out why that bothers me so much. It’s not a question of “justice,” because I don’t think it’s my place to apply justice where and how I see fit – nor do I think we all have the same idea of right and wrong. Talking to a friend last night, I realized that it gets down to two things for me: 1. Integrity & 2. Progress


Whatever your values are, integrity is the act of living your life in accordance with them. You cannot say that you don’t approve of lying, and then do business and socialize with people who you know are liars.  Your action is not one of integrity, and actions speak louder than words. You do approve of lying, you invite it into both your professional and personal life.

I said this to someone, who got quite upset at me when I did, because he insisted that he “had” to. Why? I inquired. He had legitimate sounding reasons: they had a professional relationship that he “couldn’t” give up. Why? I asked? Well, it’s business. Napkin math led me to $80 an hour, once a week. So, integrity is worth $320 a month?

I suggested that he didn’t have to, he was choosing to. Which is fine, but be clear that it’s a choice, which he had every right to make. He could also choose not to, and probably replace the business with someone he wasn’t “appalled” by. And that might have a net positive impact on everyone. Certainly on him.  My issue wasn’t with his choice, it was with the fact that his action was diametrically opposed to his stated values.

Similarly, I’ve inquired why people stay in social situations with people they don’t like and trust – inviting them to parties, not calling them on their shit. The response is usually, “I don’t want to create drama” or “it would be really awkward,” or something like that. This makes no sense to me either. You are afraid of hurting the feelings of people who’s feelings are already hurt AND the person who hurt them? If someone is treating one or two people badly, they’re likely to continue treating other people badly until there’s a reason for them to stop. But if they’re treating people badly, and there is no cost to them – isolation, shame, loss or revenue – they’ll keep doing it. So, what’s wrong with being the one who says, “no, you can’t treat people like that?”

The most odious situations, to me, are the ones in which I’ve had people say to me, “ya, that guy is an asshole, but I may need him to invest in my company” and the like. Ugh.

At the same time, we’ll all get in an uproar and boycott BP for their misdeeds. But we won’t stand up to the asshole in our midst? Why do you think the guys at the head of Enron and BP and the like thought they could get away with lying and cheating and manipulating? I’m guessing that for most of their lives, they behaved the same way, and there were no repercussions.

It’s fine if you don’t want to stand up for what you claim you believe in, but you need to realize that your actions speak louder than your words. Admit that you believe in something different. If you don’t like what you have to admit, then change your actions to match the words that you want to hear yourself say.

Why does it matter? Because an object in motion stays in motion, until something causes it to change course.


At my core, I believe that people not only ARE fundamentally good, but that they WANT TO BE good. (Except the Hitlers of the world, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

It is possible to say to someone, “I can’t accept this behavior, but I’m fond of you, is there a way we can change and / or make amends for this so that we can continue our relationship?” Sure, that person may choose to say, “fuck you, I’m outta here,” in which case you have lost a relationship that was filled with something you don’t want anyway. Or, they may say, “Let’s try.” And then be rewarded with a deeper and better relationship, and learn a new behavior pattern that will ripple out throughout their other relationships.

In all of the examples that I can think of in my immediate life right now, this would be a perfectly reasonable option.

What would happen if someone was presented with the need to change in order to retain things that they valued? We do it all the time with addiction interventions. We encourage people to stop smoking, lose weight, work less. But we don’t touch things that we think of as “personality” traits – lying, cheating, being a bully. Why not? These are as harmful to everyone.

Raise the barre. I think of it like parenting. I never let my child shy away from something just because it’s hard. I want her to learn that she can grow, change, adapt, learn and get stronger. Whether it’s skiing a steep hill or dealing with adolescent girl drama, I teach her to “go in,” and tackle it. It may not always work, but the act of trying is how she learns and grows – and begins to trust that she has the strength to stand on her own two feet literally and metaphorically. She will learn to define her world by things that make it better and things that don’t, and know what she can impact and what she can’t.

A friend was quite frustrated with me because I was saying that I do not want any contact with someone who has repeatedly lied to and about me, and manipulated situations that I am in to harm me. But, I said, there is always a door open, if something changes. WHY? My friend implored? Because, it’s the behavior that I won’t tolerate. I still love the person. But I cannot have the behavior in my life. If he changes, and / or makes amends, there should be rewards for that.

But you have to take a stand. You cannot passively let yourself be diminished, or hurt. You cannot passively watch other people be devalued. If you do, you are part of the problem. Neutral, in this case, is negative.

You can choose to not accept behavior without shunning people. We say it to our kids all the time, “I love you, but this behavior cannot continue.” And when it gets down to a shared society in which our behavior impacts others, if you’re not explicitly supporting good behavior then you are tacitly supporting bad behavior. It took a lot of tacit support for Hitler to do what he did. I could not live with knowing that I supported evil by not standing up for good.

Life is short. Like, really short. (And for the last month or so I had reason to believe mine was quite finite and quite near the finish line. Thankfully, it’s not.) Our lives are tiny vessels in the grand scheme of universal things. What do you want your tiny vessel filled with?

Every square moment of your life that you fill with asshole is a square moment that is not filled with joy. You really wanna clutter up your tiny vessel with assholes? Even more so, do you want to clutter it up with people who aren’t able to stand up for what’s right, and protect those who need protecting? Because if you’re ever the one who needs protecting, it’s gonna suck when they don’t rise to the occasion.

All in all, I’d rather go out knowing that I was someone who showed assholes that there are repercussions for their actions. And rewards for better actions. They may not change, at all. But I will know, if nothing else, that I didn’t support it. I was not part of the blind army that stitched together a uniform society that accepted evil. I will do something, however small. You have to take sides, not for or against people, but for or against behavior.

Because all that is necessary for the triumph of kindness in the world is for there to be more kind people. And for them to stand up and say, “of course, you can come to my party, but you can’t be an asshole.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2010 7:44 pm

    Interesting that I am reading a book about people who are too nice. Not speaking out/up is part of being too nice. People don’t speak up because they are tolerating assholes – they don’t speak up because they have a need for acceptance and a need to not reject others, mistaking speaking up for rejecting and asserting your integrity/standards/boundaries as being aggressive. We have a culture of nice in Seattle.

    I love that you make very clear the distinction between rejecting a behavior and not rejecting a person. The invitation, the acceptance, can be there but we don’t have to tolerate assholes. Personally, I think very few people want to be assholes. When I have been an asshole and been called on it I felt, after my initial defensive emotions, relieved and grateful and freed as if let out of jail. People need love and acceptance – every one of us. And calling people on their shit can be, as you point out, an invitation to how to connect and get what we all really want. Self interest is only so satisfying. Except to Hitlers, but there are astoundingly few of those.

    Wonderful and timely piece Alyssa. Thank you.

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink
    October 29, 2010 8:29 pm

    yup – I think that most of the time when people do “wrong” things (or don’t stand up against “wrong” things) it’s for fear of losing something – often status, acceptance, access…. but when we do, we not only make ourselves stronger, but we create a clear channel for positive growth of everyone. i think it takes ENORMOUS strength to trust that the people you stand up to will accept you, and enormous generosity to let them. you are, essentially, telling them that you know THEY are strong, smart and alive enough to rise and be better. anything short is “giving up” on them, because you assume they’re too stupid to grow. that sucks.

    it’s bad parenting. but it’s also just bad “friending” and “humaning.”

    we are all capable of more. but we need to create the space for people to be more.

    (reminded of a great line from a David Foster Wallace. “A good lover makes their lover feel good. A great lover makes their lover feel like THEY are a great lover.” same is true of people. good people make other people feel good. Great people make other people feel like being great people.)

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