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Issue of October 15, 2014

A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

Avoiding the 'Abilene Paradox'

October 16, 2013 | 10:12 AM

"He held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went."

—W. H. Auden, The Unknown Citizen

On a sultry day in Coleman, Texas, a young couple and her parents were playing dominoes on the porch. At one point, the patriarch suggested that they drive into Abilene for a meal at a new restaurant. They loaded into a 1968 Buick with no air conditioning, drove 53 sweltering miles, ate a mediocre meal with poor service and then returned to Coleman in silence, tired, sweaty and disappointed.

That night one of them admitted that he had never wanted to go to Abilene in the first place. Then they all, one by one, confessed that they did not want to go either, but because they thought everyone else did, just went along.

This story is known as the "Abilene Paradox," after a videotape Dr. Jerry B. Harvey produced in 1974. "Going to Abilene" joins "peer pressure," "herd mentality" and "groupthink" as shorthand for those times when we weren't comfortable with the direction things were going but, instead of speaking up when it could still make a difference, we, like the lemmings in the Disney film, went over the cliff.

I think of times when I sensed things were going wrong but I was Auden's "unknown citizen" and held my peace, like the day in 1964 when the House voted 416-0 and the Senate 88-2 to rain down war on North Vietnam, or the many times I was in the company of people putting down homosexuals or women or non-Caucasians and I said nothing to dissociate myself from those views.

One sign of personal integrity is that when we don't really want to go to Abilene, we speak up.

Dr. Wayne Willis

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