Beacon Press: Worst Instincts
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Worst Instincts

Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU

Author: Wendy Kaminer

From a renowned advocate of civil liberties, a dramatic story of ethical meltdown at a revered organization and what it tells us about the landmines of groupthink

What happens when an organization with the express goal of defending individual rights and liberties starts silencing its own board? Lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer has intimate knowledge of the ensuing conflict between independent thinking and group solidarity. In this concise and provocative book, she tells an inside story of dramatic ethical decline at the American Civil Liberties Union, using it as a poignant case study of conformity and other vices of association.

In Worst Instincts, Kaminer calls on her experience as a dissident member of the ACLU national board to illustrate the essential virtues of dissent in preserving the moral character of any group. When an organization committed to free speech succumbs to pressure to suppress internal criticism and disregard or “spin” the truth, it offers important lessons for other associations, corporations, and governments, where such pressure must surely be rampant. Kaminer clarifies the common thread linking a continuum of minor failures and major disasters, from NASA to Jonestown. She reveals the many vices endemic to groups and exemplified by the ACLU’s post-9/11hypocrisies, including conformity and suppression of dissent in the interests of collegiality, solidarity, or group image; self-censorship by members anxious to avoid ostracism or marginalization by the group; elevation of loyalty to the institution over loyalty to the institution’s ideals; substitution of the group’s idealized self-image for the reality of its behavior; ad hominem attacks against critics; and deference to cults of personality.

From a renowned advocate of civil liberties, Worst Instincts is a surprising story of ethical meltdown at a revered organization that has abandoned its core principles. It is a powerful book that has much to tell us about the land mines of groupthink.

Note from the Author

Ch. 2, The Problem with Partisanship, note 2.

This book is not a comprehensive expose of ACLU controversies, (which would be too tedious for me to write or you to read,) and the Beacon Press archive only documents this book; but my colleagues and I have been in the process of making a comprehensive record available in another publicly accessible archive.
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“The willingness to criticize your own based on principles you would apply to others is a measure of integrity. Kaminer’s important book about her beloved ACLU has that integrity. She tells a startling, sad, and exceptionally well-documented story.” —Ira Glasser, former executive director, ACLU

“Standing up to your political enemies is easy, fun, and often profitable. Taking public issue with your friends and allies on a matter of great principle is none of these, but it is a far more important service to others. I am enormously grateful to Wendy Kaminer for the intellectual integrity and moral courage this book represents.” —Congressman Barney Frank

“Witty, trenchant, devastating, Worst Instincts is a study of institutional decay, of how good organizations, blinded by the righteousness of their mission, do bad things.” —Jack Beatty, author of Age of Betrayal and On Point news analyst


Review: Free Expression Policy Project - May 1, 2009
“It is far from a grudge book or a simple insider tale of hypocrisy in the high echelons of public interest law. Although Worst Instincts reflects the author’s understandable desire to set out a clear record of what happened and what was at stake, Kaminer is also a canny and thoughtful observer of human and institutional behavior. Her opening chapter insightfully reflects on the herd instinct and the pressures for conformity that sometimes prevent even dedicated individuals like those who comprise the ACLU’s national board from standing up for principle when faced with the risk of ostracism from the group.”
Review: Publishers Weekly - April 6, 2009
“[C]ompelling….brave and informative.”
Read a commentary on the book by Harvey Silvergate in The Boston Phoenix

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Worst Instincts

ISBN: 978-080704430-8
Publication Date: 5/1/2009
Pages: 160
Size: x Inches (US)
Price:  $24.95
Format: Cloth
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