In the aftermath of the Kealoha convictions, there’s a creed the people of Hawaii need to learn that would truly save our future: I will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those among us who do.

People are rightly satisfied that justice has been done in one of the greatest corruption scandals in local history, but let us never absolve our collective consciences of the fact that the tree of corruption does not bloom and bear fruit overnight. As a social contract democracy, we get the kind of government that we tolerate.

The City and County of Honolulu and the State of Hawaii are desperately in need of an ethical reset at all levels of governance. We have tolerated far too much lying, cheating and stealing in the islands over the years, and it has given rise to an organizational culture of entrenched fear, backwardness, and failure.

HPD Chief Louis Kealoha gestures during questioning from Commissioner Sheehan. 7 sept 2016

Why did police officers tolerate — and in some cases assist — the misdeeds of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha?

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We must purge ourselves of the belief that corruption will simply go away on its own, or that the lesser of two or more evils is acceptable. We are the only state that has chosen to uniquely affirm that “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness” and it’s high time that we started practicing the pono we preach to the world.

Problems start small before they become disasters. There are always signs that people, organizations and eventually whole governments are headed in the wrong direction, and it is the responsibility of humans, as free moral agents, to speak up when something is wrong.

Corruption requires human partnership to thrive, either in the form of willful wrongdoing or indifference by those who fail to resist or report it.

With the Kealohas, far too many people in public positions of trust enabled the couple, and those are just the ones we know about. In Hawaii, this is not an uncommon practice, as state audits over several decades reveal pattern after pattern of public agencies and civil servants failing to take action even when aware that things are wrong.

My message to government workers is this: Don’t become someone else’s sucker. Resist peer pressure and color of authority with knowledge of the truth. Hawaii has a “whistleblower law” in HRS Chapter 378-62 stating that employers “shall not discharge, threaten, or otherwise discriminate” against employees who report “a violation or a suspected violation” of the law.

If you see something, say something. Dare to upset the apple cart. The law is on your side, even when the law may be enforced by corrupt persons. Go over, under, and around corrupt persons and do whatever it takes to get the truth out.

What starts as following orders devolves into doing favors and then, eventually, turns into corruption.

There are several reasons why we say nothing or do nothing. This is not just a Hawaii thing, but a weakness of human nature that, if understood, can be countered.

The first reason for our tolerance of corruption is because of what social psychologists call conformity, or the human desire to not be out of place from one’s peers. Researcher Solomon Asch famously conducted a conformity experiment where participants were asked to look at a series of illustrated lines and indicate which was the shortest or longest – but only after being placed in a group of confederates who all lied by saying the blatantly short line was the longest or the long line was the shortest.

Participants were most likely to side with the group’s assessment of short or long, which suggests that peer pressure influences whether someone is willing to tell the truth. In Hawaii government, many people who know better do nothing in the face of evil because of fear they may be mocked, isolated or socially retaliated against if they are the first to speak up.

The other reason corruption can thrive is due to a dulling effect on the human conscience that results from the perception of authority. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment on escalating demands that involved asking a participant to deliver a series of fake electric shocks (which were perceived as real) to an actor as punishment for failing to answer a memory recall question correctly.

In the experiment, participants were directed by an authority figure to “electrocute” another person by pushing a button. It was discovered that even when the actor was seen as experiencing extreme distress and gasping for life, participants obeyed the authority figure and continued to deliver punishment as directed.

How is it that well-trained, honor-bound persons in law enforcement or the justice system could cover the tracks for the Kealohas? One possible explanation from this social psychology phenomena is that people perceived as having government authority can sometimes induce others to bypass their better judgment. What starts as following orders devolves into doing favors and then, eventually, turns into corruption.

It’s time for Hawaii to break the mold of the past and truly show the world what “pono” means. We must not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those among us who do.

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