Moral Rebels

I wrote a blog post earlier on Different types of Courage and Moral Courage was one of the described types of courage. The definition from the meme I shared in that blogpost is: “doing the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular.” The author of the article “Why Some People are Willing to Challenge Bad Behavior Despite Personal Risk” defines Moral rebels as those people who “speak up in all types of situations – to tell a bully to cut it out, to confront a friend who uses a racist slur, to report a colleague who engages in corporate fraud.”

The author identifies those people who have done this in the public eye — e.g., Mitt Romney, in breaking ranks with the Republicans to vote his conscience, those women who spoke up in the #MeToo movement, and whistleblowers who call attention to misdeeds, whether in the government or corporate America, Dr. Fauci standing up to then President Trump about actual science and COVID, etc. Many of the people she references have experienced significant backlash that would decimate most people — death threats, being accosted in public, nastiness spewed online and otherwise. Think about Colin Kaepernick and how much he has given up just by taking a knee. There is no small cost to taking action against the general public or what is generally accepted.

And so, the author posits the next logical question — what is it that makes some people stand up and others don’t? To answer this question, which I also needed answered, the author looks at the traits of a “moral rebel.”

First, the author suggests, “moral rebels generally feel good about themselves.” This is sometimes referred to as “self-confidence” or, perhaps “ego” in other, less supportive environments. Those of us who are women are often labeled as “full of themselves” or viewed as having a too high opinion of ourselves. Whatever the label, someone willing to buck the system and stand out for a cause that they believe in must begin with confidence that they are right and “the” person to speak up.

Secondly, the author posits, “moral rebels are also less socially inhibited than others.” The context in the article is that a moral rebel isn’t so concerned about being accepted by the crowd, but by showing the crowd what is right. From a social perspective, a moral rebel doesn’t fear being ostracized for making the right decision and isn’t afraid to take a stand that might go against the what is generally “known” or “accepted.”

This ability to be swim against the school of fish you are in can actually be reflected in anatomical differences in the brain, per research in neuroscience and those who are focused on fitting into the group “show more gray matter volume in one particular part of the brain, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex.” The author points out that “this area right behind your eyebrows creates memories of events that led to negative outcomes. It helps guide you away from things you want to avoid the next time around – such as being rejected by your group.” Additionally, these same people who feel better when conforming, show additional brain activity in two other places: 1) that responds to social pain (like when you experience rejection); and 2) that tries to understand others’ thoughts and feelings.

I think we have probably all seen those who try so hard to fit in, extending themselves beyond their own comfort, who are then the most wounded when their efforts aren’t successful. The author suggests that a moral rebel typically does not dwell on feeling different from the crowd, which allows them to be different without emotional fallout.

Next, the author turns to a different question: “What does it take to create a moral rebel?and lays out the following traits.

First, it is important for a moral rebel to have examples to follow. These examples could be in one’s own family or in the wider culture. What is important in following an example is that the person setting the example is one that you look up to and admire. I think a good example is how many of the men and women participating in the civil rights movement were inspired in their advocacy because of the efforts of their parents and others who preceded them and how it took the different generations of advocacy to cause change, something we’re still working on to this day.

Secondly, for someone to become a moral rebel, that person needs to feel and cultivate empathy, which is the ability to experience the word in your own imagination from another’s eyes or to walk a mile in their shoes. Using race as an example, it is those white students who are able to spend time with people from other races and cultures who have a higher level of empathy and the ability to see people from different groups as human beings and not “others.”

Third, moral rebels need skills in order to cultivate their abilities and then practice using skills. A study highlighted by the author “found that teenagers who held their own in an argument with their mother, using reasoned arguments instead of whining, pressure or insults, were the most resistant to peer pressure to use drugs or drink alcohol later on.” I think this holds true for adults as well and there are quite a few adults who need some practice participating in an argument or difference of opinion in a reasonable and respectful way rather than restoring to “whining, pressure or insults.”

The author ends the article with the comment “anyone can learn to be a moral rebel,” and I think that she’s right, remembering that the cost to each individual will be different.

One thing that the author doesn’t touch on, which I do think would be fascinating to think about, is the affect of personality on those who choose to be moral rebels. For example, depending on what personality test one views, my personality is labeled the “Guardian,” or the “Challenger” and reading about the experiences or reasons one might become a moral rebel just seem like normal life to me. Going to law school gave me the tools, the skills, and the drive to take that leaning and turn it into purpose, into meaning.

Fascinating stuff, right?

Where do you feel YOU fall?

Does this concept of moral courage or a moral rebel resonate with you? Why or why not?

17 thoughts on “Moral Rebels

  1. Yes, so fascinating! There definitely is one inside me that shows up every once in a while. The part that resonated with me is that moral rebels have empathy. I think empathy combined with firmness helps people know you’re having a conversation, not attacking, but have a firm stance.

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  2. I grew up being an outsider and even though I hated it for a long time I also became quite comfortable with it after a while. It gives a person thick skin. Personally I think reading helped a lot with this… I’ve always loved books with strong female characters. 🙂

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  3. This is a challenging topic, Abigail, and I think I fall about in the middle. Sometimes I make a fuss and sometimes I don’t. I guess it depends on how strongly I feel about the issue and how much it affects me, which makes me a rather weak moral rebel. I think this post fits well with my topic of responsibility for #WQWWC, if you want to post a link in the comment section. The reason I do is that being a moral rebel is a responsibility we have when we see an injustice or people getting hurt. I think of the Christians that spoke up and acted daringly during the Nazi regime. In some countries, the Jews were much safer than in others because strong people stood up against the Nazis. Now, all of the sudden, it has become popular to form mobs and destroy property to make political views heard. I think this is morally wrong. Free speech is one thing, destroying buildings and killing people is another. Had I been in any of the groups on either side of the political spectrum, I think it would have been very hard to speak up in the middle of a mob. Who’s listening? Our former president had the rare “responsibility” and ability to do so, and did not. In the case of Black Lives Matter, I think governmental leaders abandoned their responsibilities and did not stand up against violence either. In the cases of police brutality, I think individuals could have made a difference if they had taken responsibility to do the right thing and stop the brutality before it became fatal. I have never been in positions like these, to be honest, and I don’t seek them, but I have stood up for what I believe. The other thing that has happened to me is that my moral compass changes. What I once felt strongly about, I may have changed my opinion based on meeting people with different opinions. Anyway, those are my thoughts for today. Love to have you link this post. It’s obviously thought-provoking. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response! I think it is hard to know how we might respond if put in a situation like say during the Nazi era or even in the middle of a situation like in Minneapolis. I do understand the societal pressure not to speak up, not to intervene; at the same time, I hope I’d have the courage to say something. What I’ve done today is use my white privilege and the relationships my family has to get a friend better medical care and better communication. I also have a meeting with the leadership at my cancer center about the ongoing issues of disrespectful and dehumanizing behavior by the staff. That’s part of what I can do and I find myself uniquely situated. Maybe that’s the lesson, speak up where we are when we can. Appreciate you!! ❤️

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      1. Thank you so much Abigail. I learned last week that a Kiwanis friend of mine, a youngish Latino lost his mother to COVID. When he told me she was only 63 and healthy, I felt like my heart had been torn out. I know how much I had to advocate for my mother’s care, sometimes being bullied by doctors and helped and supported by others. I used my white privilege and the relationship I had built up with her nephrologists to get her the most excellent care possible. However, this young man was not allowed in to see or advocate for his mom or monitor her care because of the COVID restrictions. I think that is so wrong. If we can prevent catching COVID using 6 feet of distancing, masks and vaccinations, then we ought to let people in to monitor their family’s care in the hospital or nursing home.

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  4. Not sure where I fit in, but found it fascinating that those who had or practice reasoning with one’s mother (and I’d assume one’s dad or peers, even if to varying degrees), showed the empathetic promise of a moral rebel. What I did learn from my dad for sure though was, respect those in authority by exactly that trait described as without insults, whining or pressure. I have settled for doing what I do within a small circle of influence, but that’s ok. Safer (generally), and, surprisingly, sometimes quite rewarding ❤️

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    1. I think it definitely support the concept of nurture as a major part of making us who we are. I do actually think it’s not the same to practice reasoning with one’s mom as with one’s dad since men and women do tend to approach disagreements somewhat differently. It’s not absolute, certainly. Just my perception of the data the author reviewed for the article. As an introvert, I’m 100% on board with the small circle of influence. ❤️

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      1. Reasoning w/my mom or dad was definitely different, but equally as tricky, lol! I was too aggressive and had to learn pulling back into assertiveness, sometimes provoking equally strong responses & by the time I was getting a handle on it, my time had passed for a really open extroverted role, found I could “practice” in small 1 to 1, or small settings, then discovered writing, art, and social media, let me work small, yet fairly happily. At 70, I’ll take that as a win 😂

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