Leaving on principle or staying for change?

In our viciously polarized political climate, we face a steady stream of situations that test our moral values. Many people are moved to reject the status quo and are wondering whether they should just pack up and leave—leave their jobs, leave their neighborhoods, leave their country. It’s tempting, of course. Governments are pursuing actions that are morally repugnant and unethical. Corporations are enacting policies that degrade the common good or refusing to take a stand on political issues that affect their workforce, their consumers, and their communities.  Neighborhoods are witnessing acts of hate in various forms. That there is disagreement at all is not surprising: any time people get together, the group will take actions that not everyone endorses. The these disagreements are in such stark contrast to our deeply held values is a consequence of these particularly divisive times.

The question to stay or leave is a natural one that we should be asking: it speaks to our reluctance to be party to actions we find repugnant. Whether we even have the option to leave, however, is inextricably tied to privilege. For some of us, leaving merely presents the inconvenience of making an alternate lifestyle choice: we can easily settle elsewhere and have the money or the skills to make a living. For others, leaving is a much more momentous change, a sacrifice: we may not have the ability to establish roots or provide for ourselves. Establishing the feasibility and personal cost of the option to leave should be our first consideration, since we need to survive in order to effect change in any form.

Assuming leaving is an option at all, the question becomes whether we should. Leaving is attractive because we’re standing by our principles rather than being complicit in an offensive cause. Moreover, we signal that we’re standing by our principles. That means our protest registers in some small way with the group we’re leaving, heartens the like-minded in solidarity, and impresses on undecided bystanders that this issue is important enough to take a stand.

The biggest downside to leaving is the possibility that our sacrifice may not improve the common good. Unless we’re singularly influential, the group we’re leaving may not be much affected by our departure. Certainly if a lot of people walk out, the effect becomes harder to ignore, both internally and out. But then consider what happens to the group: we’ve exacerbated the problem within, since the people that remain will on average be further away from our principles simply because we’re no longer there to voice our ideals.

What if we stayed? Then we could work for change from within. That’s not as glamorous, we would not be making any sort of dramatic statement, and we will likely get little or no credit for what we do accomplish—but by having a voice at the table, by registering our objections constantly, and even by sabotaging objectionable work if it came to that, we’d be having an influence on how the group operates.

The danger with staying, of course, is self-deception: we could rationalize that we’re making a difference and just keep our head down, without advocating our position or doing so ineffectually. That would amount to collaboration. Instead, we have to be actively working for change from the inside, and we have to have the strength of character to withstand scorn from those on the outside who share our goals but think we are not morally pure because we’re engaging from within. And obviously, we have to be able to live with ourselves in the meantime: are we at peace with contributing to an objectionable agenda even as we’re working to undermine it?

Which should we choose? It’s a delicate calculus. A rule of thumb could be this: if the group we’re leaving is worth completely eliminating, and if our departure (alone or with others) is enough to very significantly advance this destruction or to force the powers that be to change direction, then we should: we’ll have the satisfaction of sticking to our principles, doing a morally clear thing, and signaling that we’re doing so. On the other hand, if we (like most people) are insignificant enough that our departure wouldn’t be noticed, we could well have more of an impact by staying, so that we can influence others to adopt our values and form a coalition that can eventually steer the group toward our principles.


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