Rock The Boat

A wide contrast in how one can think of rocking the boat can be seen in the comparison of how that action is perceived by Aaliyah in her hit “Rock The Boat” and in the Guys and Dolls number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” memorably covered by Don Henley for the Leap of Faith soundtrack.  In one, rocking the boat is seen as a sensual exploration of private and personal pleasure, and in the other, rocking the boat is seen as endangering the well-being and peace of mind of others who are on the same boat.  This contrast is a helpful reflection of the range of moral conduct in the question between the freedom of the individual and the responsibilities that we have to others.  It is easy in life to fall into error both by emphasizing the priority of the individual as well as entirely neglecting the individual or recognizing that at times it is necessary to rock the boat in this world, even if it makes others feel uncomfortable and unsettled at times.

It is understandable that we should often feel torn in such matters between our own personal longings and the responsibilities that we have to other people [1], and even our consideration to the feelings of others.  In many ways, these conflicts and tensions are somewhat unavoidable.  Society and institutions have a strong bias towards stability, given that it is difficult to build consensus for broad and massive changes, which create conflicts that must be dealt with, often in unsatisfactory ways that destroy social cohesion and threaten the legitimacy of institutions.  It should be noted as well that many times institutional leadership springs from seniority, and those who have spent decades building up positions and social capital within those institutions are not quick to embrace changes that may threaten their own power and position and that paint them in a negative fashion, even as those same authorities often struggle to harness the energy and passion of youth towards socially desirable ends.  This desire for stability is in direct contrast to the individual desire for growth and advancement, and the resulting tensions and conflicts when progress is not made fast enough or is not made at all.

How are these conflicts to be dealt with?  In many human institutions, growth of the institution provides a great outlet for stress so long as the institution is growing.  Ambitious leaders who are learning the ropes and have great capacity can be given positions that are freed by the growth of a business or another institution which allows for new offices or departments to be created, allowing more positions to spread among those who are competent and driven.  This outlet for ambition is no longer available on such a level once growth stops, much less when there is retrenchment and even those who have previously risen find their places threatened.  Individual growth in many ways depends on institutional growth, in the replacement of people by virtue of death or retirement or turnover that allows for people to rise to the level of their talents.  Yet few institutions are devoted to growth in that way, and many of them are quite content to stick people in a box and expect them to be more productive yet remain doing the same thing over and over again.

In such an atmosphere, it is unsurprising that many people would seek to rock the boat, and equally unsurprising that this rocking of the boat would be threatening to others.  Institutions are quick to point out that people depend on them, but are deeply threatened by the way that they depend on people.  A few examples should suffice from the span of recent history.  The rise of wages and standard of living among blue collar workers in the rust belt encouraged companies to seek to lower the cost of that labor by relocating in the Southeast as well as in foreign countries, leading to immense social decay in many of those areas, like Detroit, and the replacement of solid blue collar jobs with more insecure service Mcjobs.  In turn, the rise of minimum wages in areas where these jobs are particularly ill-suited to providing for income growth and dignity of life is threatening the replacement of expensive labor with self-service kiosks and other computerized means.  The reason this is done is somewhat straightforward, if lamentable, in that capital expenses are seen as a good thing and labor expenses are seen as as bad thing, even if the larger health of areas and their civic institutions, including businesses, depends on the wages people receive being turned into purchases of other goods and services in a virtuous cycle.  The structure of what is desirable and undesirable within institutions, in other words, has led them to behave in ways that are lamentable and predictable, and harmful to themselves.  Rocking the boat in such insecure times makes people who are already nervous and jumpy even more so, but there is a point to doing it if one does it the right way—and few people do.

How are we to resolve this tension?  If we begin with the premise that the purpose of people is to serve others through institutions and that the job of institutions is to serve people, both those who work for them and those that they work for, the tensions are possible to resolve.  This requires virtue—so that people serve others regardless of the offices in which they serve, and where people are on the lookout to help their institutions serve others better, which in turn will lead them to focus their positive attention and giving of opportunities to those who are already serving others and simply could use better resources to do so.  It is when we focus on our own immediate and selfish short-term interest, though, that we lose sight of the virtuous cycle upon which our happiness depends.  If we choose the wrong bottom line, and the wrong way of viewing our core purposes, we will behave in ways that will eventually cut the ground out from under our feet, or rock the boat so that we end up falling in the water and being the object of ridicule and scorn to those around us.  And none of us want that, I would hope.  It is far better to seek opportunities for stability within growth, and for resolving tension through seeking what is best for all, and not only what seems best for ourselves for the moment.

[1] This is, unsurprisingly, a common personal concern:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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