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?