To overcome injustice as a society requires moral courage.
If things continue as they are, the prognosis for the United States of America is grim. Half a million people have died of opioid and fentanyl overdoses in a predictable and preventable crisis engineered by the willful negligence of large pharmaceutical interests. If things continue as they are, those victims’ blood will lie not only on the hands of the pharmaceutical companies, management companies, Drain, Barr, and the Sacklers. It will also lie on ours.
In a perverse act of gaslighting, survivors and victims’ loved ones must move about in an America breathlessly celebrating the presidential turnover while callously ignoring the incomprehensible suffering still felt by the individuals and communities that have been torn apart by the opioid epidemic. Many of them see the rest of us saying nothing and hold their tongue out of fear of being made pariahs. Many of them take our silence as complicity—because it is.
What is moral courage and how can we express it?
Now is the time to express moral courage. Now is the time for a few people to be willing to be unpopular and disagreeable. They will be—we are sure of it—plentifully rewarded.
Amherst professor Catherine Sanderson wrote the book Why We Act, in which she faces head-on the question of the bystander phenomenon. Why, she asks, do moral people turn a blind eye to the injustices around them? Pointing out many examples of the bystander phenomenon in everyday life, she stresses that ignoring harm at crucial moments can lead to death—deaths that just one vocal bystander could have stopped. To explain why so seldom even one dissenting voice is heard requires developing a psychology of mass inaction. To Sanderson, such a psychology is based in the desire to be well-liked: individuals subconsciously monitor the reactions of their peers to learn how to respond to a situation. People, she writes, “look to those around them to figure out what to do or think or how to behave. But everyone around them has a poker face, in which they’re trying to not indicate any sign of concern.” (See here) This feedback loop encourages an atmosphere of silence, yet Sanderson is hopeful. “Major shifts in culture can and, in fact, do happen,” she points out, and individuals who are early to participate in a cultural reformation can have a disproportionate influence. (See here) Our project is to ensure that we are living in a time when such a shift in culture will happen—and that is why we are taking bold and even ludicrous action. Now is not the time for conciliation. We must teach the people around us that they can speak up.
Sanderson acknowledges that we live in a world full of injustice and moral adversity. But unlike the complicit people around her, she refuses to hold only the perpetrators of evil responsible for the fallout. “It’s tempting to blame evil acts on evil people,” she concedes, but argues that we cannot afford such complacency in our attributions of blame. There is safety in the vast numbers of mass silence, but it is an asymmetrical safety: “Silence, after all, can perpetuate cruelty.” (See here).
Sanderson’s thesis statement echoes the words of brave and moral individuals from throughout history. We must do more, however, than echo them. We can all recite the fabled words from Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Sanderson gives advice on what it means to live by this manifesto: how we can fulfill the mandate of the great figures of history that the everyman must stand up. First and foremost, we need to inform people that they are not alone—that their outrage or discomfort with a situation is likely indicative of how other people feel as well.
One of Sanderson’s more striking findings is that the “nice guys finish last” stereotype isn’t true. She cites a Harvard Business School study (see here) finding that CEOs viewed by their employees as responsible, kind, and moral have a higher average return on their assets. In Why We Act, she elucidates the concept of a “moral rebel”: an individual willing to speak their mind in the face of widespread injustice, even if his peers disagree. Excitingly, people can learn to become moral rebels. Certain personality traits can be cultivated that help us speak out against injustice.