There is a large step between disavowing a leader and actively opposing him. When disavowing a leader, a follower is casting light on the leader’s actions in the court of public opinion and leaving it to the corrective mechanisms of the organization or society to respond.
When courageous followers choose to actively oppose a leader, they themselves mobilize available mechanisms for disempowering the leader. When attention has been called to corrupt behavior and the corrective mechanisms of society respond too slowly or indifferently, courageous followers may feel responsible for firing them up. The police captain who brutally beats suspects, the politician who abrogates the legitimate constitution, the executive who orders a toxic-waste coverup, the zealot who commits arson to preserve his community’s “racial purity,” each deserve to be vigorously opposed.
Of course there are risks to opposing venality. The obvious risk is retaliation by leaders who are being opposed. There are also psychological risks. While these will not dissuade courageous followers, we should be aware of them:
Followers may become obsessed with opposing the leader and expend all their energy on efforts to stop him.
Followers who become obsessed run the risk of themselves disregarding basic human values in pursuit of their obsession.
Followers who become obsessed will pay a heavy price in their personal lives, as obsession is the destroyer of balance.
If followers were victimized by the leader they may wind up paying twice, once by the victimization and once by the obsession to stop it from happening to others.
This price may be the cost of disempowering evil, but it is a greater victory if followers pursue their goal with determination rather than obsession.
The antidote to obsession is generating as much energy toward the positive ideals we are trying to realize as toward the source of evil we are trying to stop.
A good example of a vigorous and balanced opposition to evil is a Klanwatch organization in the South that recognized it was becoming obsessed with exposing neofascist groups. In order to correct this, the organization initiated a project to teach tolerance in schools as a positive balance to its aggressive litigation program. If a follower’s opposition is balanced, energetic, skillful, and timely, she can become the catalyst that triggers society’s mechanisms for broadly exposing the abuse and preventing its recurrence. At this point the follower has transformed herself and become an opposition leader.
The most difficult and dangerous situation occurs when the abuse of power is violent and society’s legal mechanisms for correcting it have been corrupted by the abusers. Opposition must be bold and imaginative to counter the use of violent force by mobilizing the overwhelming force of public opinion against it. Electronic media, which can focus the whole world’s attention on an abuse of power, may be shifting the advantage to such opposition.
The gravest choice a courageous follower turned opposition leader makes is whether to use force to counter force in political situations in which democratic processes have been abrogated. By doing so, there is a risk of escalating violence and suffering. Nonviolent resistance has always been a brave and morally unimpeachable response. But can we condemn the followers who tried to stop Hitler’s carnage by concealing a bomb in a briefcase under the table at which Hitler sat? Few of us would condemn that act. We mourn that it failed! But it is rare when the case is so clear cut. Using violence to counter violence is a terrible, slippery slope. In almost all cases it, too, becomes abusive—the ultimate lose-lose situation.
When followers morally oppose violent leaders while those leaders are still vulnerable, they have an opportunity to preempt situations becoming so desperate that they must entertain opposing violent force with like force.