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It's A Gray Area: When to fight the status quo

October 11, 2013|By James P. Gray

Have you ever felt inspired, hopeful, able and optimistic about your ability to right a wrong?

Have you ever felt frustrated, small, ineffective and helpless about your ability to do anything about a problem?

I have, both ways.

Recently my wife and I saw the movie "The Butler," starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, and, in what is probably the most intentionally ironic casting in the history of moviemaking, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Although the supposedly true story was certainly exaggerated as only Hollywood can, the film starkly brought forth the dilemma between accepting the status quo and taking large and even uncalculated risks to try to change its wrongs.

So what can or what should we do? The huge message from the film is: both.

In life, some issues are worth dying for, but trying to right some intolerable wrongs sometimes simply turns people into martyrs without anything good coming from their efforts. The trick is determining which is which.

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I deeply regret that I did nothing when I had an opportunity in college to take a stand against racism. When I was in a fraternity at UCLA between 1962 and '66, we were almost literally instructed by our alumni advisor not to pledge anyone who would "not be acceptable" to every chapter in the country.

Translation: No blacks or Jews allowed.

Looking back, my having accepted that dictate without actively opposing it is a big failure in my life.

But I find solace that later in my life I actively protested against the table grape industry when it was mistreating the migrant farmworkers; our country's invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict; and the failed and hopeless policy of the so-called war on drugs.

Of course, life isn't perfect — and it never will be. I even raised my children with the saying "Who says life is fair?" To some degree we all must face and accept reality. But I also believe that if there is nothing in life that a person would actively protest, that person is probably morally dead.

Along those lines, I often play a mental game by asking myself what some public figures would have done during our Revolutionary War: Would they have been Patriots at appreciable risk to their safety and treasure, or would they have been Loyalists, with continued subservience to the king of England? In my view, most would continue to serve the king.

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