Nikki Stern, a Plainsboro resident, describes her upbringing in a suburb of Milwaukee as being nearly ideal, remembering especially the active family debates around the dinner table, encouraged by her lawyer father. Even the parts of her world that were not so great during her 1950s and ’60s childhood, like the closemindedness, were something she was able to go home and talk through with her family. So it makes sense that in the aftermath of 9/11, when Stern lost her husband, Jim Potorti, who worked at the World Trade Center, she remained a questioner, even as she struggled through her grief.
Stern’s childhood training in considering multiple perspectives came into play even amid the quagmire of conflicting emotions and personalities she encountered as an advocate for 9/11 survivors. As she was trying to get a sense of everything going on around her and what role family members could take, she started to feel uncomfortable about how some family members were being viewed by others and even saw themselves. “I noticed people using the phrase ‘moral authority’ and applying it to 9/11 families,” says Stern.
Stern shares one particularly disturbing incident. Having worked for several years at Hillier Architects as director of corporate communications, she felt she had helpful background she could contribute at a meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on the rebuilding, at Ground Zero. But she encountered some very vocal family members who had no knowledge at all. “I’m very willing to acknowledge my limitations,” says Stern, “but some seemed less willing to acknowledge theirs, and they had other people cowed.”
When Stern commented to one of the professionals present how bothersome it was to listen to a family member expressing strong opinions about something he knew nothing about, the person responded, “Yeah, but the families have moral authority, and you can’t say anything.” The public, she realized, was beginning to define respect for the 9/11 families as giving them “the right to express their opinions without any kind of correction because they have moral authority.”
“I didn’t understand what that meant,” says Stern, who began exploring the implications of moral authority in a March 13, 2006, opinion piece in Newsweek titled “Our Grief Doesn’t Make Us Experts.” “We might assume it’s a quality ascribed to individuals who can provide clarity on the ethical, social, or moral underpinnings of particular issues,” she wrote. “Those who have it have influence; we pay attention to them because we believe they possess superior vision or perspective. It stands to reason that moral authority is gained through experience and exercised with wisdom and restraint.”
But her own observations were telling her otherwise, that “moral authority” was a quality assigned to particular people or groups of people, including the relatives of 9/11 victims, whether or not they were particularly knowledgeable or even ethical. “Losing someone in a terrorist attack is a horrible thing to experience, but it doesn’t necessarily make us wise. Grief doesn’t make us righteous — or right,” wrote Stern.
Starting from her assumption that grief doesn’t make a person morally superior, Stern began to do the research that is captured in her new book, “Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority.” Stern will do a reading and conversation about her book at Labyrinth Books on Tuesday, June 22.
In public forums 9/11 families were being asked to speak on topics, whether or not they had the experience to provide insightful answers. For example, maybe it made sense for Congress to invite them to testify about mental health, if they were being asked to talk about their personal experiences of mental distress. But, Stern wondered, should they be asked what a homeland security program should look like? “At what point do we say, ‘I’m very sorry for your loss, but you may not be best person to speak on this subject’?” she says.
But Stern also started to notice that the public’s penchant for assigning moral authority to others did not stop with 9/11 families. “I noticed a tendency in our society, in our culture, to view certain people as just knowing what is right, knowing absolutely, and then bowing to them and anointing them as moral paragons,” she says. This category may be applied, for example, to celebrities and to physicians, and even if these people later disappoint, their mantle of moral authority is simply transferred to someone else.
Assigning moral authority may seem innocent enough, but its consequences can be very destructive. If some people are deemed to know what is right and have access to moral blessings that the rest of us don’t, then our vision gets blurred, and we start finding comfort in moral absolutes that we accept without questioning, such as “we are right and they are wrong” or President George Bush’s “we are good and they are evil.”
As Stern further penetrated this idea of unquestioning acceptance of authority because it is deemed “moral,” she realized more and more how much people get attracted to certainty. “Certainty is hugely comforting for people in need and in confusion,” she says. Hence the danger of a demagogue who engages a crowd by laying out as absolutely true certain assumptions and convincing listeners that these assumptions are the only ones they could possibly have. A person like Hitler, for example, projected this kind of certainty, and Stern remembers when she was young looking at footage of Hitler and thinking, “These people are not questioning; they are just enthralled and amazed, part of something bigger than themselves.”
Growing up in Milwaukee, Stern became interested more in the outside world and particularly in the United Nations. “I loved the whole idea of a diversified, multicultural group of people,” she says, “and I started taking French lessons and later studied Spanish.”
Stern was also very creative from an early age, playing both flute and piano and writing poetry, finally settling on musical composition as her metier. After majoring in history and French at Washington University, she earned a master’s degree in political science and American constitutional law at Georgetown University. But while she was still in graduate school, she started to work as a musician, spending about 15 years as a struggling composer, arranger, songwriter, and lyricist.
During the eight years she was in Washington, she wrote music for audio books; created funny, specialty songs for cabaret singers; and wrote the scores for about six documentary films and about 15 musical murder mystery dinner theaters, four of which got published as the Cafe Noir series and are still done around the country. She also cut an album and then a CD.
Just before she got married in 1990, Stern moved into public relations work with Hillier Architects. She and her husband moved to Plainsboro in 1992.
After five years with Hillier, Stern served as director of corporate communications for Swanke Hayden & Connell, a New York architecture firm, and also worked for Ewing Cole, architects in Philadelphia. She nearly stopped writing songs during this period, although she was still writing down ideas for lyrics and even a couple of ideas for stories.
Then came September 11, 2001, whose effect on her own life Stern captures in six powerful words: “My husband died and everything changed.”
The day after he died, she started a diary and memoir that she calls “Between Waves,” which she has not yet published. “It needs so much editing, and I don’t know whether it would be of interest to anyone or whether I want to go back — it’s very painful,” she says.
But the writing was less about publication than simply something Stern was driven to do. When she came home from work, she says, “All I would do was write. I couldn’t sit and read and watch television. As I wrote, it got clearer that, in terms of self expression and dealing with my pain, it was only thing I could do.” As support in her writing efforts, she enrolled in the New York Writers Workshop.
After September 11, still traveling into New York for her work at Swanke, Stern found herself in the informal role of collecting information for New Jersey survivor families about what was going on in New York with regard to charity donations and outreach to survivors. “I did not have children and was able to get to these meetings,” she says. “I felt better running around and going to as many meetings as possible.” She had already given up her work at Ewing Cole immediately and by summer 2002 also dropped Swanke.
Stern also helped form a support group in Princeton that at times had as many as 30 people and was run by Princeton psychologist Ruth Goldston, who took no money for her work.
Eventually Stern was appointed to the family advisory committee of the Lower Manhattan Development Council. She met Jon Corzine, who urged her to take a more formal role in helping families in New Jersey. He funded a post for her through his foundation, and in January, 2002, Stern began a year’s service as a 9/11 ombudsman and advocate. In 2002 Stern also joined the board of directors of Families of September 11 and in 2004 she became its executive director, serving through mid-2005.
Stern is planning to begin work on a second book this summer and is thinking about working for one or two local political candidates. More generally, she would like to employ her writing and communication skills to help an organization whose work she believes in to develop and focus its message. She is clear, however, about one thing. “Mostly I want to be doing something that involves human interaction,” she writes in an E-mail. “Writing is terrific fun and I’m pleased and proud that I devote several hours each day to it. But it’s also very isolating.”
In her new book Stern also explores a solution to our tendency to assign moral authority, one that harks back to the lively discussions her family had around the dinner table. Stern says we need to develop a more flexible way of thinking about good and bad, right and wrong, and what we know and don’t know. What it comes down to is replacing stereotyping with critical thinking. “This us-or-them mentality is anti-American,” says Stern. “A closed mind seems to negate everything that America stands for.”
Stern says that with the “morphing of the media into a kind of Internet free-for-all, people are reckless with facts and with information, and are very gullible when it comes to believing them; they believe what corresponds with what they already believe,” she says.
For Stern there is a kind of beauty in uncertainty, in not knowing absolutely what the outcome will be. “There are many possibilities and you work for and hope for the best one. It is possible to be uncertain and be an optimist,” she says. “It is fun to keep yourself open to considering arguments given by other people. I can’t imagine living any other way.”
Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. Tuesday, June 22, 6 p.m. Nikki Stern, author of “Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority,” discusses her book. 609-497-1600 or www.labyrinthbooks.com.