Dangerous Words

During the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, when asked to denounce white supremacy, the president sent a clear message to far-right militia groups, especially the Proud Boys, to “Stand back and stand by.” Within hours of uttering these words, this white supremacy group adopted Stand Back and Stand By as its new slogan. As Donald Trump continues to say the quiet part out loud, concern about this autocratic messaging spiked. We’ve seen this before.

For over 40 years, all over Europe, countries have dealt with fascism and communism. Now, right-wing, totalitarian parties are flourishing in Eastern and Western Europe. Occlusion thinking is growing worldwide. For example, Hungarian political leaders say migrants are poison and are not needed. They dehumanize others through propaganda and negative media images. In this way, ordinary people accept discrimination against minorities.

America has been steadily moving in this direction with President Donald Trump. He has said repeatedly in the past that he wanted a total and complete shutdown of Muslims from entering the country, he turned his back on refugees from war-torn countries, separated children from their parents at the Mexican border, considered rescinding the right of U.S. citizenship to children born of immigrants in this country, and uses the adage "Law and Order" in response to Black Lives Matter protests. 

The irony behind this rhetoric is that all Americans are of immigrant ancestry, or were brought here as slaves, unless they are Native American.

History has taught us that totalitarian threats to democracy come gradually but systematically. Let’s explore how this happens.

All evil begins with 15 volts

In 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of studies of blind obedience to authority; one included his “shock box.” For this experiment, Milgram recruited people to play the role of “teacher.” A researcher in a white lab coat represented the authority figure and oversaw the teacher. In another room, an unseen researcher posed as the “learner.” The teacher would "teach" the learner how to improve his performance. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was told to flip a switch on a box and give the learner an electric shock. They began with 15 volts which was increased by 15 volts with every mistake. The ineffectual “shock box” had 30 switches. When the teacher would get to 100-150 volts, the learner would begin to yell and scream.

In every case, the teacher turned to the experimenter in a white lab coat, the authority figure, and said they didn't want to continue, but the experimenter said they had signed a contract and must go on. While the teachers complained verbally, behaviorally they complied. At the end of the box was 450 volts. The question was: Who would go all the way? The sad answer: two out of every three of almost 1,000 participants went to the full extreme of 450 volts. When you flip that first switch, that 15 volts, you are on the steady slippery slope to evil because you know where it could lead.

How totalitarian governments start with 15 volts

Using the above as an analogy, we can see how totalitarian governments can take over a democratic nation:

15 volts - limit free speech

75 volts - control the media

135 volts - control the judiciary

195 volts - politicians replaced with selected officials

265 volts - punish, imprison all critics

310 volts - suspend elections

385 volts - military or religious rule

450 volts - total political domination

We may say a right-wing government is not for us, or that we aren’t that kind of people, but gradually over time, one by one, day by day, month by month, this kind of process has happened in Europe. A few years ago in Budapest, the government took over Central European University, a private university, which must now be called Hungarian Central University—and all foreign professors must leave.

Five challenges

Throughout the world, and in the United States, we are facing five tests that pose difficult challenges for all of us:

  1. An expanding inequality gap between the very few rich (about 1 percent) and the increasing number of poor people as well as the diminishing middle class. In the U.S. and many other countries, the middle class is being squeezed out and eliminated.

  2. An ever-increasing flow of people migrating from war-torn impoverished countries to neighboring nations. 

  3. The graying/aging of most societies. As life spans increase, there is a decrease in fertility. In many countries, the fertility rate is declining. For instance, in Japan, there is a negative fertility rate. This is a new problem for young people.

  4. Mass migrations from East to West, from South to North, and from farms to cities. 

  5. Climate change.

Our world is rapidly changing and we must learn to adapt, to make wise choices. And in the U.S., the movement to erase the democratic progress made over the past 60 years in our republic, and replace it with a narrow, selfish, 1950s retro America is growing. Whether we choose for the good of all, or for the good of a few, is up to each of us.


Heroism begins in the mind and is inspired by educating people about social psychology. It starts by rethinking the nature of good and evil and by thinking of yourself as having an inner hero. As individuals, we can start by transforming bystander apathy—which characterizes the bystander effect—into heroic action. The paradox of the bystander effect is that, in an emergency situation, the more people who are present, the less likely anyone is to help. What we’ve learned in the past 50 years is that in an emergency situation, as soon as one person helps, then in seconds that help multiplies. 

Heroes are ordinary people who take extraordinary action during challenging situations in their lives. Effective heroes do the right thing when other people are doing the wrong thing, or more often, when they are doing nothing. A hero also exposes evil in all of its many forms as a whistleblower.

What is a hero?

A hero is someone who acts on behalf of others in need or defends a moral cause; a hero is aware of personal risk or cost.

Heroes are generally ordinary, everyday people whose actions in challenging situations are extraordinary. They generally disown the label when people say they did a heroic deed, often saying, “No, no. I did what anybody could or would do.”

Heroism creates a positive ripple effect on others who see these good actions, which then spreads – sometimes throughout the world. Conversely, when you see someone doing something bad or evil, it has a negative ripple effect.

How to be a hero

Start with small steps. Here's how:

  • Make somebody feel special today. For example, learn their name, look them in the eye, or give them a justifiable compliment.

  • Ask questions, never follow the rules blindly. We teach our children to obey authority but let’s teach them to obey “just” authority and defy “unjust” authority.

  • Always ask, what is my ripple effect? What have I done today that will influence other people in a positive way?

Then take the next few steps: 

  • When you see something you know is wrong, use your words and speak out. 

  • Get involved in a civic-minded group. 

  • Vote.

Heroes are sociocentric. The enemy of heroism is egocentrism. In other words, when I think about me I'm never focused on you. Let’s consider our new job in life, every day, wherever we go, to make other people feel special. It's not about me; it's about you. Let's change our perspective from me to WE!

What a brighter future looks like

  • Peace replaces war.

  • Passion rules over fear.

  • Understanding and acceptance replace prejudice and discrimination.

  • Heroes dominate villains!

How can this be achieved? Be The One. Be that person who ignores the social norm of doing nothing and creates a new social norm of doing something. As civil rights activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis said, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” 

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