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Outrage culture and the criticism of success

In the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men”, Col. Nathan R. Jessep — played by actor Jack Nicholson — is being grilled by a Navy lawyer. Played by actor Tom Cruise, the character of Lt. Daniel Kaffe is pressing for answers from Jessep. Specifically, he was referring to the boundary wall located at Guantanamo Bay that separates the U.S. Naval facility from other parts of Cuba. Jessep says: “you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” Of course, Nicholson’s character was using his argument to justify a murder that he was largely responsible for — but he does make an interesting point. There are people, sometimes, we need on that wall.

Somehow, over the last 10 to 15 years, many are vilifying those who have contributed a great deal to society. Floods of social media posts sling harsh criticism, sometimes only because these companies or individuals have achieved a high level of success — facts be damned. This has led to what many believe is a toxic “cancel culture” or “outrage culture.”

For example, founder of Microsoft and active philanthropist Bill Gates has changed our world in many ways for the better. The company he started is responsible for innovative products that impact our life every day. Has he gotten wealthy from it? Of course, yes.

But many individuals around the world have also benefited from this success! They have done so not only through Microsoft products or services, but also through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This foundation has provided health care and educational opportunities throughout the world and would not have been possible otherwise. The foundation’s website calls out goals ranging from reducing inequality, empowering the poorest in the world to transform their lives (especially women and girls who are disadvantaged in many cases and countries) to fighting against infectious diseases.

Yet, despite Gates’s successes and his extensive philanthropic work, a great deal of criticism is directed towards himself or his foundation. Criticism of successful business professionals, athletes, and other prominent figures are abundant on social media — often unchecked by reality.

Why is society so quick to criticize success?

Is it to make them feel better about themselves? Is it jealousy or envy? A lack of understanding? I have my own theories (guesses?) but what I do know is that it’s not only happening, but it’s popular and trendy. Everyone’s a critic, and there are platforms to promote it. Even I’ve been guilty myself of second guessing the play call of a football coach or two. (Of course, I have the experience of playing left bench on my 9th grade soccer team to back me up, right? I’m still sure UCF should have gone for the field goal against Pitt on fourth down.)

It’s easy to miss the good deeds powered by success

To be sure, some of it is legitimate and verifiable. But through all the criticism, large or small, it’s easy to overlook the people and companies that change our world for the better. There’s no upside in bringing an individual or company down simply because they are successful, and when in fact this success can empower them to benefit society. Plus, this trend creates an environment where valid criticism is lost among the noise. As parents, grandparents, and members of society — we need to move ourselves and the people we influence away from this trend.

Meeting and understanding those who are wealthy and successful gives one a different perspective. Some may be super-rich in monetary terms, or they may be successful as I define it: they do what they love, they do it well, and they make the world a better place along the way. I have met many successful individuals of all kinds. The vast majority are the opposite of arrogant; they are willing to freely share their knowledge and experience with others. They are concerned for the greater good. The knowledge I have gained from these people is many times greater than what I have learned from any textbook or class.

Let’s learn from the success of others when we can

So, I suggest that we learn from those that have a positive impact on the world we live in. View the actions of individuals and business for what they are. Many improve our lives and are socially responsible. When it’s the right thing to do, the world can benefit by supporting them.

Let’s learn from innovators and “interrupters” too. They may offer us opportunities in health care, environmental solutions, and other areas that empower humanity… that we haven’t even thought of! We need these people on that wall.

October 2019

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