Should Raw Human Emotion Dictate When to Act on Injustice?

Fear. Anger. Betrayal. Pride. Relief. Each of us is struck by flashes of raw human emotion, moments when everything changes, when nothing seems sure but the searing energy of unvarnished feeling. And it's not just individuals. We can all point to watershed moments in the histories of our countries, of our world--even when huge groups of people joined in shared, raw feeling for a moment in time. It is what we do in those moments--whether we turn that potential energy into kinetic forward progress or let it scatter into reactive chaos--that often defines us for all the moments that follow.

In my work as a federal public defender in Charleston, South Carolina, I have a narrower sphere of influence than many of my counterparts in the Aspen Global Leaders Network--many of whom are gathering this week at the Aspen Leaders Action Forum--so I often wonder how my experiences will translate for my friends who are elected leaders, corporate CEOs, or activists for democracy around the world. My job on any given day is to persuade just one prosecutor or one judge or twelve jurors to act in a manner that I believe best aligns with justice.

But, then again, my cases intersect with some of the most hot-button political issues facing the United States right now, including the status of undocumented immigrants, the laws governing firearms, and the consequences of our vastly unequal social and economic conditions. And there is no doubt that in my job I come into contact with raw human emotion every day--that of my clients, of their families, and of my own:

Standing in a federal district courtroom last fall, I was beside my client, a very young woman who had waded across the Rio Grande to come to the United States seven years earlier on the promise that there would be a job waiting for her in South Carolina. We were there to enter her plea of guilty to misdemeanor illegal entry into the United States. It was a routine plea, and one I've guided plenty of other clients through.

But on this day, I was gripped by raw human emotion. As I stood there helping her through the judge's questions, my frustration was turning to rage. I felt physically threatened by my own anger and my fear at what it might cause me to say. I was not angry that my client was pleading guilty or that she would be punished. I was not angry that the prosecutor decided to pursue her case along with the 15 other employees of a landscaping company he rounded up one Wednesday. I was not even angry--in that moment--about the fact that she would soon be deported along with her two-year-old child who was born in this country.

No, I was simmering with rage because nowhere in that courtroom was the US citizen who had enticed her to come here and work for him, paid her minimum wage for backbreaking labor, and then withheld her final pay check once she'd been arrested. I was filled with anger at myself for being complicit in a system that picks and chooses winners every day. As I thought of what I might say next, praying that the speech that was writing itself wouldn't land me in jail for contempt of court, the judge said, "You know, I can't help but notice that no one from the company is being held responsible for this. You can't possibly be telling me that no one from the company has any responsibility for all of this, Mr. Prosecutor?"

And just like that, the judge's mere recognition of the injustice at work set my shoulders at ease, relieved me of the sharp edge of my anger. And so, with that relief, went my courage to stand in any meaningful way against what I knew to be wrong.

I've thought a lot about that moment since then.

If not for the clarifying energy of raw human emotion, where can we look for courage? It was my rage that would have given me the courage to take action that day that might have cost me my job, might have garnered a bit of press, might have shamed some minor legal action. Would it have been worth it? For my client? For me? If not then, when should I make that speech?

This week, I will join with a couple dozen fellows of the Aspen Global Leadership Network to discuss "When Human Nature is at Its Rawest." To be sure, we each bring to the table private, unique histories that will inform our imaginations when we approach the topic. Some of us will have been participants in Tahrir Square. Others have been fighters in the South African struggle to overcome apartheid. Still others are on the front lines of social change in the United States. But for all of our differences, we also come to the table with a shared vocabulary of leadership, borne from the experiences each of us has shared through searching, thoughtful work we do together as part of this fellowship.

One of the touchstones of the fellowship experience is our reading of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which King asks the urgent question that presents itself to all who would assert themselves as leaders at some point: If not now, when? Dr. King's challenge to the clergymen of Birmingham who had encouraged him to pull back his efforts in Birmingham, who urged him to wait for the courts to resolve segregation, who called his efforts "unwise and untimely," was a fierce but measured response rejected those calls. The time for waiting had long since passed.

One of the key tensions for those of us in positions of leadership is to recognize the moment for action. We must know the difference between a flash of raw human emotion and the alignment of moral imperative with opportunity. Wait too long and we are the Birmingham clergy. Act too soon, and our efforts may be dismissed as hot headed and ill timed. And, no matter the cause, no matter the strength of our convictions, we must learn to tolerate the uncertainty that our best efforts will meet with approval or success.