It's A Gray Area: When to fight the status quo

Have you ever felt inspired, hopeful, able and optimistic about your ability to right a wrong?

Have you ever felt frustrated, small, ineffective and helpless about your ability to do anything about a problem?

I have, both ways.

Recently my wife and I saw the movie "The Butler," starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, and, in what is probably the most intentionally ironic casting in the history of moviemaking, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Although the supposedly true story was certainly exaggerated as only Hollywood can, the film starkly brought forth the dilemma between accepting the status quo and taking large and even uncalculated risks to try to change its wrongs.

So what can or what should we do? The huge message from the film is: both.

In life, some issues are worth dying for, but trying to right some intolerable wrongs sometimes simply turns people into martyrs without anything good coming from their efforts. The trick is determining which is which.

I deeply regret that I did nothing when I had an opportunity in college to take a stand against racism. When I was in a fraternity at UCLA between 1962 and '66, we were almost literally instructed by our alumni advisor not to pledge anyone who would "not be acceptable" to every chapter in the country.

Translation: No blacks or Jews allowed.

Looking back, my having accepted that dictate without actively opposing it is a big failure in my life.

But I find solace that later in my life I actively protested against the table grape industry when it was mistreating the migrant farmworkers; our country's invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict; and the failed and hopeless policy of the so-called war on drugs.

Of course, life isn't perfect — and it never will be. I even raised my children with the saying "Who says life is fair?" To some degree we all must face and accept reality. But I also believe that if there is nothing in life that a person would actively protest, that person is probably morally dead.

Along those lines, I often play a mental game by asking myself what some public figures would have done during our Revolutionary War: Would they have been Patriots at appreciable risk to their safety and treasure, or would they have been Loyalists, with continued subservience to the king of England? In my view, most would continue to serve the king.

That conclusion is substantiated by history, because it was only a minority of people in the 1770s in our country who actively worked for our independence from the crown. This is true with the movements for civil rights and gender equality. But thankfully we had people during each of those times who were prepared to take risks for their and our freedoms.

And we still do.

In many ways, and mostly through no cause of our own, we are all so truly blessed in this life to be who we are, live where we live and have what we have. But as Ronald Reagan and many other inspirational leaders have said, "Freedom is not free," and it can survive only if we are vigilant in its protection.

Would you be a Patriot or a Loyalist? Are there some things you would sacrifice for? Are there injustices that are happening now involving you or others that you will look back on later, like I have, and wish you had stood up actively against them?

A clerk in my courtroom once taped a hand-printed sign over her desk that read: "If it's to be, it's up to me."

That is a hard standard to live up to, but we all should try.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World