Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Balance Between Judgment and Hysteria

Thursday's shootings at Fort Hood have naturally evoked strong emotions. And the media and some prominent political leaders have taken all-too-predictable postures, two of which I feel compelled to address. The falsehood that Islam is aligned with terrorism and malice, and the falsehood that Islam is a victim in such situations as this, with innocents who worry about an unreasonable backlash. Both contentions are wrong.

First, about Islam. There are over 1.5 billion practicing Muslims in the world. So far, there have been 221 terrorist incidents in 2009 through November 2, so even if we say that every single one of those were committed by a Muslim (including attacks in Greece, Ireland, South Africa, and the Starbucks bomb in New York) and that two dozen Muslims were involved on average in each incident, that only implicates 5,304 Muslims and means that over 99.999% of Muslims worldwide had nothing to do with terrorism so far this year. Frankly, if even one percent of Muslims worldwide had it in for America, or even against Israel, we'd see an unprecedented level of violence and murders, because even one percent of Islam would be a force of 15 million terrorists, and no realistic estimate of terrorist activity has ever come close to a million total, much less 15 million. Between Iraq and Afghanistan, over 50 million Muslims have come into close and regular contact with U.S. troops. While there are places of hostility against the West and the U.S. in particular, and some spots rank with pure evil and hatred, the soldiers who have been there will tell you that it has much more to do with culture and politics than religion. For most Muslims, their faith is a private matter between them and God, a question of living honestly and by their best ideals, and hatred towards another human is a sin to be avoided. Most Muslims love their families and their nation, and have a generally tolerant outlook towards everyone else.

So what happens when someone like Nidal Hasan (allegedly) decides to kill innocents while screaming the name of his god? To me, once you get past the emotion and look at the facts, pretty much the same thing as any fanatic who goes psychotic. Hasan had no wife or girlfriend, he had no close friends, even his family and those at Fort Hood who had the most contact with him note that he was distant and aloof. While Hasan complained to some family that he was being mocked for his Muslim beliefs, other Muslims at Fort Hood emphasized that the military accommodated them at all times and they felt proud to serve with the men and women in the U.S. Military. When you dig down to the bottom of it, Hasan was a lot like another Islamist Loser: Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.


Does this look like a chick magnet? A guy who wants to raise a family and be a good husband and father, someone who thinks first about his moral duties and personal integrity?

No. In any culture, this guy is a loser, albeit a clever and dangerous psychopathic loser. He and the real world were quits, so he joined up with a group of other losers who tried to compensate for their personal failures by blaming everyone else. And that is what hapened with Major Hasan. He became bitter about his place in the world, and decided to punish everyone else. That's really the only way to explain how someone could decide to kill a roomful of innocent people, most of whom he had no grievance whatsoever, including a 21-year-old pregnant soldier, a band member, two soldiers who had just returned from Iraq, and two others who were being deployed to Afghanistan just as Major Hasan was scheduled to go, among others. This was not a blow against some imperial power, it was the impotent scream of a coward.

Islam has its share of such cowards, to be sure, but so has Christianity and other religions. Remember the cowards who bombed abortion clinics in the name of Christ? Anti-war protesters who think nothing of attacking soldiers in the name of peace? Look at the troubles in Northern Ireland for nearly a century - there is nothing in either the Anglican or Roman Catholic dogmas to excuse the kidnappings, torture, bombings, and murders that happened there for so long. Consider the tribal conflicts in Rwana and Burundi not so long ago, or the cold-blooded extermination practices of Miloslavic and his Serbs. Even Buddhism, founded on clear commitment to reverance for life, has its share of extremists, including Triad groups who see conflict in murdering people then going to temple to be 'spiritually cleansed', so they won't feel bad about their crimes. My point is that some people will abuse the tenets of any religion.

So why do Muslims not march in outrage over the hijacking of their faith? For one thing, I don't believe they feel they should have to state what they think is obvious. Even though most serial killers are white males, I have never felt it necessary to point out that most white males would never commit murder. Even though many crimes were committed in the name of Christ over the years, most notably during the various Inquisitions, even atheists and Muslims recognize that Christianity in its essence had nothing to do with the spirit of evil which tortured and killed in the name of the Prince of Peace.

It is true that certain teachings of Mohammed are troubling to non-Muslims, but let's not forget that other beliefs have had similar problem areas. Most Mormons today live exemplary lives of charity, tolerance and humility, and so have very little in common with the racist, xenophobic Joseph Smith. Many Scientologists are open-minded and just want to live by their creed, and so have almost nothing in common with the arrogant and greedy L. Ron Hubbard. Come to that, I am a Southern Baptist but have little in common with most of the denomination's leading ministers. I'm not saying they aren't fine men and honest, but a man whose career focuses on only one creed and point of view has trouble seeing things the same way as a working man who sees real life from the perspectives of the street and the diversity of a truly global community.

Also, Islam is rooted in the culture of the Middle East. While American Muslims live in the modern world, their faith comes from a place where women and the young are expected to give way to the men and the elders, where criticism is uncommon because it so often leads to conflict and escalation, and where challenging those in authority is seen as rebellion rather than reasonable doubt and skepticism. Even the Roman Catholics have their Jesuits to challenge assumptions; Islam has not yet reached the point where theologians can help the faith become relevant to changing social and cultural conditions. Whatever he was, the prophet Mohammed did not prepare his people for a world of cultural diversity and demographic trend shifts.

That brings us to the second problem. Islam likes to play the victim card, even when a Muslim is the criminal. It is very difficult for a Mullah to explain why a man like Osama bin Laden, educated and from a good family, would countenance the murder of innocents on a Hitler-like scale. So they evade the question and try to leverage a sense of guilt from the victims, because the United States is a generous and open-minded country, one of very few willing to examine its own behavior in a critical way. No one in the Saudi royal family, for instance, has ever shown an interest in criticizing their own policies and behavior in the past, and the Palestinans are even worse. These guys have made the wrong choice in every major decision, since they chose to back the Nazis in World War 2. But rather than consider the foundation of so many bad choices, Palestinian leaders chose instead to insult and attack Isreal, precisely because Israel is careful of its behavior and considerate of the rights of Pelstinans in most cases.

In the Unted States, Islam has always shown that it sensed its place in America as a tolerated segment of the population, rather than a welcome member of the community. This comes to some degree from a certain discomfort with the way Muslims speak and act and dress, but it also comes from Muslims' self-chosen segregation. Muslims do not eat the same foods as most Americans, do not attend the same entertainment and recreational events as most Americans, and do not treat Americans as close friends in most cases. Islam is not liberal in the traditional sense, many Muslims act as if Americans carry a kind of infection, and so it is difficult for a non-Muslim to be close friends with a believer. Even in the heart of America, Muslims often act is if they must live apart. This happens with other faiths, of course. Hasidic Jews, for example, also cordon themselves off from contact with Gentiles and they have strict dress and dietary codes which set them apart. Some fundamentalists also dress, eat, and behave in ways that seem strange to most Americans. But there are many more Muslims than Hasidic Jews or fundamentalist Christians, and so the segregated culture becomes more obvious.

The acts of a Hasan or other psychotic Muslims is an issue that has no easy answer, but it is important for non-Muslims to recognize that such behavior is anomolous to Islam, just as it is important for Islam as a whole to recognize that these extremists must be denounced in the interest of understanding what makes someone a Muslim, and what does not.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Good Grudge

Job hunters are under a lot of stress. In the first place, few people are looking for a job as a luxury, and almost as few feel that they have most of the control in getting the job they want. For all the books, seminars and classes in pursuing your ideal career, I’d venture to say that while most people like their jobs for the most part, fewer than one in forty would say they are in the job of their dreams, and that they accomplished their job through a disciplined job search. Luck plays a role, for bad as well as good fortune. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to me that people whose job search is slow or less than satisfying may display indications of their discontent. It’s only human to reflect the stress of the endeavor, exasperation of the bull-headed bureaucracy, and anger at a system which seems to reward appearance over substance, and style over real ability. Oddly enough, many hiring managers also suffer the same stress, of trying to find truly qualified candidates in an ocean of poseurs. But it’s more difficult for the individual than the business.

The people trying to help job seekers, pretty much unanimously, emphasize the need for an upbeat, positive attitude. Generally, they are right. It is important not to be negative about your past work experience when speaking to recruiters and at interviews, it is essential to be positive about your skills and what you can do for your company if they offer you the position. But at the same time, a lot of things get attacked as “negative” when they are actually important, in more than one way. For one thing, the people offering advice are sometimes wrong. One discussion board I joined had an administrator telling everyone that they needed to join groups, then make sure to use their groups as a network to find leads towards jobs. Having been part of a number of groups apart from professional societies, I can promise that such behavior is a very poor idea, and would likely kill your credibility and poison your network. That’s because special interest groups exist for the specific purpose of the group, and members don’t like or respect people who join just so they can advance their own interests, especially when those interests have nothing to do with the group’s purpose. For example, I spent a number of years as a high school official in three sports, and each sport had a local chapter with weekly meetings to go over events, rule changes and interpretations, game films, and anything else related to the sport. A member of any of these chapters is expected to come to the meetings to learn about how to be a better sports official. While it’s fine to discuss informal and personal items, even then those topics tend to be related to sports; loving the sport is why these guys become officials in the first place. So some first-year member who starts trying to find out if the chapter members can help him find job leads, is not going to be considered legitimate; the topic is just plain wrong. And many groups I have belonged to have demonstrated a similar attitude. So the administrator of that job-seeker group was absolutely wrong, and was actually hurting members with her advice. So while positive attitudes and finding inventive ways to expand your professional network are good things, it is also important to rein in wild, untested theories and assumptions. It’s also necessary to deal with your grudges.

With very few exceptions, everyone in a job search situation has some bad feelings lurking around. While I agree that you should focus on your skills, experience, and positive attitude when applying and interviewing for a job, it is also important to deal with the things which cause you anger, resentment, or other negative emotions. After all, in most cases the person who lost the job did not deserve to lose his job, and even those employees who could blame themselves for their job loss often have good qualities to their work which they may feel should have been considered. Also, the way in which the company lets employees go is often a cause for unhappiness, and then there is the difficulty of the job search itself. Put it all together, and you have a condition where the stress and frustration needs an outlet, ideally in a way where it helps the individual move forward in their work search. Rather than tell people to suppress or hide their grudges, assistance groups should help people find ways to turn their grudge to good purpose.

As I mentioned earlier, I agree that when making an application or in an interview, the focus must be on how your skills help the company and how your attitude is positive and team-centered. But you need to deal with the weight and fire of your negative side, and find ways to use that to your advantage. For instance, I once had a boss, pretty high up in his company, who was afraid that his managers would discover they were underpaid and quit on him. His solution was to attack, harass and demean those managers at every opportunity, really rip them up so they would be in constant fear of being fired for some trivial (or even nonexistent) mistake, and never realize their rights, even though any one of us would have been fired on the spot if we had treated our staffs the way we were ourselves being treated. At first, I and the other managers just took the abuse, but years later I reflected on the behavior and used it to remind myself of the importance of actively listening to my people, to make sure my behavior was as ethical and courteous as I believed it to be. This not only helped my relations with my staff in my next three jobs, it also helped me get promoted when my consideration earned me credibility as someone who did what he preached.

Finding positive uses for negative experiences is one way to deal with your grudges. Another important use, however, is to talk about them in a confidential setting. Let’s be clear, I am not saying you should ever give potential employers indications that you might be a malcontent at their company or that you can’t let go of bad experiences, but it’s important to recognize valid events, and frankly just as every company sooner or later suffers from a bad or dishonest employee, so too most of us have had the misfortune to work for a company which was unethical and dishonest. Imagine someone who quit working at Enron in 2000, before it came out how corrupt its officers were. Imagine someone who left WorldCom, or someone who was an auditor for Arthur Andersen, who quit because of how those companies did business. Looking back, not only would it make no sense to praise a former employer whose business practices are now documented in ethics textbooks as egregious examples of criminal behavior, it would also make perfect sense for these individuals to feel that they had been badly used for staying true to higher ethical standards.

When you have to find a new job, you also look at the horizon in every direction, and that includes things you did not like about past jobs, things you hope to avoid the next time around. In a best-case situation, you can apply those lessons at your new job, avoiding the damage done in the prior experience. Recognizing that high-level bosses tended to berate and ignore the floor staff at one job helped me focus on selling bosses on opening informal feedback channels at another, beyond the usual ‘open door’ claim that is made so often. The experience of support for a project evaporating because the superior forgot about it, reminded me to include update reports on pending projects to superiors, including reference to their prior written support, to keep the idea fresh and familiar. Almost any bad experience can be useful in building tools to prevent it from happening later on. So even a grudge can be a good thing, if you use it to positive effect.

Finally, it needs to be said that humans are not machines. The facts of a situation can be handled rationally, but the effects carry emotional weight. There needs to be a way to deal with mistreatment and injustice suffered in a job, even if it’s just that you were sometimes under-recognized or happen to be one of the employees in your group laid off in a company reorganization. I notice that the help groups always point out that there is no “stigma” in being let go these days, which is a help on one level, but being laid off always has impact, and while you may intellectually understand that there was no personal insult meant, being laid off when you have been doing good work and were relatively happy at your job will always carry the emotional weight that you were selected to be let go, a sense that the work you did was not recognized the way you hoped it should be, that your skills and experience were not valued enough to be kept on board. If you’re like me, at some point you may even wonder why your value to the company was lower than the old furniture in the reception – there are chairs that have almost no value anymore, yet they are kept forever, yet in any downturn there are many good employees let go. Understanding the economics of the variable cost of human capital does not satisfy the sense of injustice which comes from being considered not only not indispensable, but as disposable assets of little consequence. We all like to believe that we matter, and being let go is an assault on that sense. It is only reasonable, therefore, that while the sense should be managed in a productive way, there is a valid need to address that grudge. The grudge is authentic, even if the help groups say it must be suppressed. I would argue that it is far healthier to recognize that the grudge is real, that it exists for valid reasons, and that it can and should be applied to good purpose in personal reflection and planning for the future. The short version may be as simple as 'don’t get fooled again’, but in a less cynical sense it also carries the value of hard-earned experience, unique lessons that can be applied to real world situations, and which may have specific value to your new company and team.