Thursday, April 07, 2011

Honesty and the Jewish Community IV: Seeing is Believing (and Ignorance is Bliss)

(continued from here - whole series is here)

Friends of ours once made a comment literally in passing, as we stopped to say hi to one another walking down the street, that has always stuck out. It was shortly after the Jewish Economics Survey was started the first time around, and was quite honest. Our friends commented that they had seen the survey, but they decided after starting it that they didn't really want to take it. When we asked why not, they responded that "We know that right now and for the foreseeable future, we are living way beyond our means. We'd rather not know exactly how bad it is or think about it too much, and just enjoy life and worry about it later when we can do something about it." To be fair, these friends are not blinding themselves - one is now a doctor, the spouse a professional as well - nor living fancily, and they simply wouldn't have had the ability to do too much about their finances for a while. But the attitude is a real one, albeit differing in scope from person to person.

Often in life, we tend to unconsciously (if not consciously) convince ourselves that things are better than they really are. Sometimes, this is a good trait: It allows us to be more optimistic about life, stay sane when times are rough, continue to function well on a daily basis until things really do get better, or maybe even just allow us to continue enjoying watching sports (last one may apply only to people from Cleveland). But it can also get us into trouble, by not letting us recognize problems quickly enough and allowing them to fester and grow until it's too late. People (usually) innately understand this to be true, which is why so much of life seems to be full of advice columns and tips and tricks which essentially are supposed to 'trick' us into thinking about things properly and doing what we're supposed to be doing.

The easiest way to avoid issues in life is to not see them - and the way to solve them, while difficult, is to open one's eyes and honestly assess what is happening. It's why, the free personal finance site and (as many friends and readers know) a personal favorite, sold itself to Intuit for $170 million within a few years of its creation - its visual appeal made its popularity take off and they picked up millions of users in almost no time. One of its PR liaisons once explained the site was delaying putting out a Blackberry application due to its lack of visual appeal on the Blackberries out at that time, and how important the visual representations of spending were to the impact the site had on its users. A favorite story are couples who have stopped fighting about their expenses once they could see it all in front of them clearly, and started working to fix their budget. Without that "in front of your face" simple-to-understand representation, all the data in the world couldn't impact a user the same way.

We have so many issues in the Orthodox community, and yet we turn a blind eye so often to the wrongs the occur within it - from white collar criminals to shady business practices, from excusing horrible behavior and commentary to racism and the like, to the way people are treated as ba'alei teshuva/geirim or in the shidduchim process, to the (finally being discussed somewhat) cases of abuse, we let so much slide. Worse yet, we justify so much of it in the name of "the community" or as "necessary evils" to be put up with. As a simple example, this past week a suit needed to get dry-cleaned prior to an event, and Serach brought it to a nearby dry cleaner we have never used before that said they could get it done that day for a reasonable price. When I went to pick up the suit and pay via debit card, they said they couldn't take it for under $25 - and that since they don't advertise that they accept credit cards, they can refuse to take it. I pointed out that this was false, as per their cardmember agreement, and they said to report them but they will not give me the suit, and literally grabbed it away and took it to the back. (Ezzie: I actually did report them, but apparently in NY you can't report a dry cleaner - they have a specific exemption for dry cleaners that they won't take complaints. Odd.) What disgusted me the most was their argument: The owner said to me,
"I don't care what the rule is, I know I'm not supposed to, but (waving his arm motioning to the other stores nearby) every other store here does it, go ask them. They all won't take cards for under whatever, and I won't either accept credit cards for under $25."

Sadly, the thought that goes through the head of listeners to stories like this not automatically that this is a dishonest store not to be visited, but all too often instead that "I have to remember to bring cash when I go to that dry cleaner."

Until we as a community show that we will absolutely not accept dishonesty at any level, we are simply feeding its continuance and growth. Blissful ignorance may sometimes work for one's self, but it translates into and contributes to countless people being hurt, seeing their lives damaged if not destroyed, and placing many of them into truly dangerous situations. These are not merely the people we pass by on the street but don't really know, so we can pretend that it's "not so bad", but these are our colleagues and people in our shul, our neighbors and friends - people like us.

Or us, too.

(to be continued)