We Are Out of Change

In their work on administrative evil, Adams and Balfour identify the “fundamental ethical challenge” facing professionals as follows: “…one can be a ‘good’ or responsible professional or leader and at the same time commit or contribute to acts of administrative evil” (“Leadership, Administrative Evil and Ethics of Incompetence: Lessons from Katrina and Iraq”). What Adams and Balfour are saying is that even when we embody our professional roles in accordance with the norms of our profession, we still run the risk of becoming part of the problem…of committing administrative evil.

Part of what makes the work of Adams and Balfour compelling is that their idea of administrative evil applies not only to leaders in established organizations, but to interest groups, advocates, bloggers, or affinity groups on social media. We all, it would seem, have equal opportunity to participate in administrative evil particularly against “society’s most vulnerable and superfluous members.”

While it is certainly not the only cause of administrative evil, I would suggest that one point of origin is related to our own personal discomfort and self-interest. When a particular group within an organization feels uncomfortable, marginalized, and voiceless or believes (rightly or wrongly) that leadership has no accountability, it isn’t abnormal to seek to remedy the situation by installing a new leadership who will be more sympathetic to the uncomfortable group’s concerns.

The problem is that not everyone shares the same concerns (or even sees that there is a problem), so advocating for a particular cause may simply reproduce a situation in which different groups feel uncomfortable, marginalized and voiceless while a new group becomes part of an unaccountable leadership team…and the cycle continues.

Changing who is in power doesn’t address the underlying dynamics of the way power is utilized. It doesn’t transform the way we relate to one another…it just makes one group feel more comfortable at the expense of another.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether a particular end justifies both the means and collateral damage required to achieve it. We live at a time where information is cheap, opinions (informed or otherwise) are easily expressed, and complexity and nuance are viewed as the tools of those in power to avoid accountability. For every battle won using politics (whether through organizational alliances or media pressure) we have to ask ourselves whether we’ve actually changed anything of substance. We have to recognize that being comfortable with a new status quo doesn’t make it any better than the previous one.

In the end, while it is certainly appropriate for us to have our own opinions, hold our leaders accountable, and even bring suspected wrongdoings to the attention of appropriate parties, we must also recognize that the way we seek to remedy injustices, or to curtail administrative evil, can lead us to “commit or contribute to acts of administrative evil” of our very own. Some may believe that righting old wrongs is worth creating new ones…but I doubt it.

Take a look at the related post entitled “We Are Out of Change…In Theological Perspective” in the “On Faith” section of this site.