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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Are you owned by your employer? Have you been reduced to their tool?

The evidence is in: consuming soda and other products laden with high fructose corn syrup is contributing mightily to diabetes. Undebatable. Yet, what is debatable is the extent of corporate responsibility. Are beverage companies liable for these diabetes cases? I don't know about you, but I tend to enjoy a Coke every once in a while. I've weaned myself from the frequent soda consumption I engaged in during my twenties, more because it was adding to my waistline than to any risk of diabetes, as my genes are pretty good on that score. And I consume it knowing very well that it isn't good for me. But it tastes good.

There are many other legal businesses engaged in things that aren't good for us. Marijuana entrepreneurs in states like Colorado did billions of dollars in legal business last year. The extent of harm is debatable (and taking money out of the hands of the Mexican drug cartels might indeed be a good thing), and certainly those using it to alleviate tremoring in MS or AIDS wasting syndrome are well justified in using it, but I don't think anyone credible has ever argued that consumption of marijuana for those not using it as medicine improves their health. Smoking it undoubtedly contributes to the risk of lung cancer, as does smoking anything.

Companies that make tobacco products, companies that make handguns, companies that make weapons sold to Middle Eastern and Near Eastern countries--certainly all of them in one way or another contribute to death and misery. And none of these companies are going away any time soon.

So, you've decided to work for a company (or other entity) that is doing some harm in the world (even if it also doing some good). To what extent are you complicit?

The time I had to consider this in my own life more than in any other was when I applied for a position with the USDA back in 2004. It would have moved me back to Berkeley, put me in charge of 17 Ph.D. scientists and their groups, and given me adjunct status at UC Berkeley. I finished as the top candidate, and then they cancelled the search, deciding all candidates were too young and inexperienced to fill this role, because this role included interfacing with commodity groups and the California state government.

Were I to have been offered this position, I would have had to meet with Governor Schwarzenegger weekly. I would have been prohibited from making any political statements contrary to his policies, as I would have been considered to be speaking for the federal and state government. Not knowing if I'd get this position, I considered the cost: shutting up publicly. I also considered the gain: bringing a lot of funding to very important areas of research. At the time, the only biologist with federal funding to work on alternative energy would have been in my group. And I could have shunted more money into this area. And into non-chemical control of plant diseases, a major long-term goal of what had been my research.

I decided I could, in good conscience, make that compromise, as it would have accomplished a lot more good than silencing me caused harm. Could I have lived with this compromise? I don't know, I'll never know, I didn't get the job.

But I have observed the way the jobs held by others have changed them. One of my colleagues in my scientist days did very good agricultural research until the company switched priorities. They wanted her to employ her analytical skills to a new project developing better clothing and equipment for soldiers in battle. This was during the Bush II years; she objected to many of the uses to which this equipment would ultimately be put. But she had kids to support and a mortgage to pay; she had a husband also working for the company. She did the work. She never spoke of it again. Nobody from the company ever said anything, but she allowed her voice to be silenced.

My neighbor in Delaware once told me he had the only job a moral person could take with the large bank for which he worked. He described his job as telling the bank's employees not to do what they were trying to get the rest of America to do: take out credit cards and use them to borrow money. He said this with a sense of sadness, knowing the level of misery credit card debt had caused many people, and knowing how deceptive the advertising was that lured them into credit card debt. As a Christian, he was struggling with whether working for that company would mean he was going to Hell. It clearly bothered him a lot. And he was willing to talk about it, hanging out in our backyard, in secret. He shut up at work.

I would assume most folks working for fossil fuel companies would be discouraged from engaging politically in the fight to reduce carbon emissions. And I could go on and on, but there's a bigger point to be made here. One of my industrial colleagues from back in my scientist days once told me that after a year of working for the company, his thought process was no longer "What is cool science" but "What will make money for the company." Being a company man had changed him. And that bothered him.

And although I've used mostly corporate examples, these issues are not limited to them. How many teachers or school administraors administering standardized tests censor their opinions on them when talking to students or parents? And how many go along with giving them and don't even bother to question anymore?

And even more insidiously, how many people hang out with "one percenters" in their jobs and begin to base their politics on corporate tax rates or reducing regulation of industry when in their younger days they had cared about personal freedom, alleviating poverty or safeguarding the environment? The narrow, short-term, monetary self-interest of the class who owns them becomes their passionate concerns.

These questions need to be asked of oneself. To what extent are you no longer your own person because of your participation in an unjust economic/social system?

The first short story I ever published in a science fiction magazine, "The Traitor's Last Words," explored these issues. The protagonist was a geneticist in an alternate history Nazi Germany who makes a discovery that allows modern genomics to develop. Working for the Nazi regime not only guided the science but also molded the scientist. My novel-in-progress has the focal character antagonist go insane as the only way of coping with the immorality implicit in his position with the Department of Defense (in a near-future version of the US, following the Second Civil War, which is much more militarized than today's society).

The extent to which people are changed by the lifestyle and occupation they take on and their perceived need to defend their choices interest me. People who tell me of their struggles with these issues interest me. But I often lose patience with those in denial. Over breakfast this morning at a local restaurant, I spoke with a man who insisted that in all his social interactions he refuses to speak of politics or religion. Then, over the course of the conversation, he professed an implicit politics that embraced Social Darwinist capitalism. He was a day trader, among other things, who he said several business partners shunned him because he always bet on the demise of companies (and, unstated, probably contributed to the demise of some). He embraced the neo-apartheid, neo-feudal nature of our existence in this resort town, in which the wealthy never even acknowledge, let alone interact, with the majority who are impoverished. (>75% of children in this area grow up in poverty.) And he skewered certain religious organiztions where social justice was actively pursued as weird, proudly proclaiming that he'd have nothing to do with those "religious idiots."

The Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hahn once said that one should be careful with the tools one chooses, because one becomes the tool. One example he used was a gun; it's easy to see what becoming the gun means.

The man at breakfast had become the analytical software used to help him short stocks.

And he was alone and lonely. I wasn't surprised.

Anyone else interested in the psychology about how one's career and social choices end up shaping the type of person one is? Either in a positive or negative way? If so, please comment either on the website or on Facebook. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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