Advocacy Ethical Considerations

Advocacy, Risk and Courage

Last night I was flipping channels and ran across this heart-breaking story on Rachel Maddow. In short, Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt of Rosemont, Minnesota lost their openly gay son this year in Afghanistan. Recently, Mr. Wilfahrt testified in front of Minnesota’s senate as they consider a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He tailored his message to veterans’ groups, to people who had ‘taken an oath to protect the Constitution’, because he knew the Senators weren’t listening.

While I encourage you to click the link and watch the entire interview, here’s an excerpt:

As it turns out, that really got me nothing. I have had little or no response from the veterans societies of the state of Minnesota, at least so far. If I said something to offend them, I apologize.

I sat in my chair in my living room and said – out loud – to these incredibly devastated people on my television:

You said nothing wrong. These people are simply cowards.

Pretty strong language, I admit, but recent events in my own life have shown this to be true far more often than I’m comfortable with. Sure, people have reasons for staying silent or hiding behind their computer screens, but the truth is, real change requires risk and confrontation.

Where would we be if:

– The signers of the Declaration of Independence had remained anonymous
– If Alice Paul hadn’t protested, been imprisoned, and commenced a hunger strike
– If Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t gone to Alabama?

Or how about the countless corporate, government or citizen whistleblowers: Woodward and Bernstein, Jeffrey Wigand (tobacco), Coleen Rowley (FBI’s slow action pre-9/11)…

I’ve been wrestling with these issues over the past couple of weeks, questioning if I’m the one out of line, if my expecations were too high. Then today, The Hastings Center bioethics forum published this essay by Dr. Alice Dreger, entitled “On Naming Names”.

Again, I encourage each of you to read it in its entirety (cuz it’s a wonder), but here are my favorite bits:

But real accountability requires real names.


It’s also really hard to appropriately laud those who did the right thing without naming the names of those who didn’t along with those who did.


As long as Society was to blame, no one was to blame. And no one had to change the status quo, because no one could change Society. Once I forced my students to start naming who exactly thinks or says this or that, their whole view of the world changed. Suddenly they realized who was responsible for promoting this (mis)representation or that ugly norm. And they realized you just had to change the behaviors of those people. Suddenly my students had power. The giant named Society had magically shrunk; the short guy with the slingshot had magically grown.

Perhaps it is that sudden resolution of the vision of power that scares us in the naming of names. So long as we do not name names, we can just take our paychecks and fade into the big picture with the rest of Society. We are not obligated to see who is doing what, and so we are not obligated to see who we are. We are not obligated to try to be big.

As evidenced by the Wilfarht’s, our country is currently divided into bullies and cowards, and the bullies are surely winning. We are obligated to try and be big.

One reply on “Advocacy, Risk and Courage”

1) Thanks for catching the Maddow piece
2) Personally, I sign all on line postings in my own name, I'm okay with what I have to say
3) I agree with the tenor, tone and point of your piece


Jeff Wilfahrt, father of CPL Andrew Wilfahrt, 552nd MP Company, KIA, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2-27-2011

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