The Best of Intentions

An ancient question poses: “What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?”

The question is sometimes called the “omnipotence paradox.” But it’s not really a paradox. It isn’t a statement and it doesn’t contradict itself. It is a problem, though, especially when it refers to conflicting positions.

There is another question perhaps less answerable because it reveals a deeper problem in human behavior: What happens when an irresistible force meets an irresistible force?

And what if those two forces are, presumably, fighting for the same cause?

In Newark, New Jersey, an anti-violence demonstration deteriorated into a violent scuffle between two activists.

A small crowd of demonstrators began arguing on the steps of Newark City Hall about the city’s attempts to curb violence. They had come to demonstrate at City Hall, demanding that the mayor take decisive action against rising violence in Newark.

One group was led by Salaam Ismial, co-chair of the New Jersey Study Commission on Violence, and Abdul Muhammad, an anti-violence activist.

The demonstration was organized to urge Mayor Ras Baraka — who had organized similar rallies when Cory Booker was mayor of Newark — to put his own “quality of life plan” into action to help address violence in the city.

A group of Baraka supporters appeared, including Tyrone “Street Counselor” Barnes. At one point, the Baraka supporters began heckling the other group. The argument soon turned ugly and Barnes put his hands around Muhammad’s neck and pushed him to the ground.

Witnesses said the skirmish lasted only a few minutes, and there were no serious injuries.

The only serious injury seems to have been to non-violence. As Mayor Baraka said, the scuffle was “disheartening.”

The irony is palpable. It sounds like a satire. But before we laugh at the people involved, maybe we should take a look at the underlying motivations.

The simplest thing to do is dismiss it as a turf battle. And maybe it was. But maybe there’s more to learn from it.

In 2006, Greenpeace, a leading environmental organization trying to protect endangered species, said that a ship of theirs, the Arctic Sunrise, was deliberately rammed by the Nisshin Maru, a ship belonging to a Japanese whaling fleet.

Shane Rattenbury, the expedition leader for Greenpeace, said, “There is no way to describe this as anything but a deliberate ramming which placed the safety of our ship and the lives of our crew in severe danger.”

A very different picture was painted by The Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo, which said that the Greenpeace vessel deliberately rammed the Nisshin Maru, a Japanese research vessel, in the Antarctic while it was attempting to transfer cargo.

How did the Greenpeace ship happen to be in the way of the whaler? According to the statement released by Greenpeace, “Overnight the Nisshin Maru had been offloading accumulated whale meat onto a supply vessel and early this morning our activists, in inflatables, began to paint the words ‘whale meat from sanctuary’ on the side of the supply ship. This action in no way impeded the transfer of the meat and the tiny inflatables did not represent a threat to either vessel.”

Then the Nisshin Maru refused to get out the way when the Greenpeace ship began bearing down in its direction.

The other guy refused to move his jaw when the punch was thrown.

Which leads us to another age-old dilemma: Why do good people do bad things?

After a rash of white-collar crimes led to the collapse of major companies, in 2012, Business Insider sought to get a handle on what led up to this deplorable situation. They summarized a study by Dr. Muel Kaptein of the Rotterdam School of Management about behavioral biases that lead people to do wrong.

The first is “tunnel vision”: Too single-minded a focus on personal goals can blind people to ethical concerns.

“The power of names” changes bribery by calling it “greasing the wheels.”

“Social bond theory” in large organizations can make employees feel like cogs in a machine. They lose their individuality and personal conscience. Fraud becomes impersonal.

There are other issues — from arrogance that makes people think that things are coming to them, to a culture that rewards avaricious behavior with profligate pay and perks.

The bottom line is that a corrupt environment can corrupt good people.

If we’re honest, we have to face the fact that none of us is immune to corruption. So how do we avoid doing the wrong thing for a “good” reason?

The Yid Hakadosh, Harav Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa, gave a classic interpretation of the verse tzedek tzedek tirdof. This is usually translated as “You shall surely pursue justice.”

Why “surely”? Because of the repetition of the word tzedek — justice.

The Yid Hakadosh takes a different view. The repetition is not redundant: The ends don’t justify the means. You have to pursue justice with justice.