Generally, history attempts to valorize those who stood up for values that we now consider humanitarian and worthy of admiration. Thanks to hindsight, key figures or moments can be seen as pivotal and influential — clarion calls to do the right thing. But in the process of designating those figures as retrospective heroes, we may inadvertently either minimize or overidealize the suffering and sacrifices some of them went through to stand up for truth and justice. Some of these heroes endured major negative consequences for their bold soothsaying, including torture or death, both literal and figurative. It begs the question: Was there something the rest of us could have done, either on an individual or a societal level, to listen or support these individuals before their ultimate sacrifices?
Plenty of examples come to mind. Most recently, Sinead O’Connor’s death in late July created a perhaps larger-than-expected wave of retrospective regret that in a quick instant, she became a social pariah, who then faded into a pop-culture footnote, with occasional news about her mental health struggles and tragic events like the death of her son to suicide. Her own death set off, particular for many Gen X’ers who grew up with her music, a freshly unburied wound of guilt. With rueful clarity, we now contextualized the act that set society off — that despite their role in a religious institution, leaders of the Catholic Church systemically covered up the molestation and abuse of hundreds, maybe thousands, of children by members of its clergy. O’Connor tore up a simple photograph of the Pope on national television, and yet some people equated the act with a murder, given the pontiff's role as an idealized sacred father figure. But she was right about the words “child abuse” that she had just bravely sung in her ethereally strong voice. And we now realized how complicit we were in letting her take the fall and be shunned for stating that truth. All the mournful treatises about her upon her death, while often beautifully written and honest in their own right, also shined a mirror upon our own cowardice after the fact: that we could only safely praise her genius after she was gone.
Other examples include leading figures in the civil rights movement who at least successfully enacted and inspired major change, despite their ultimate sacrifices, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Others who stood up to dictators like Hitler, such as Sophie Scholl or Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, were ultimately executed and didn’t succeed in their primary missions, although they helped underscore the cost of the evil they fought against. Every situation has a different level of cost to measure against the sacrifices made; one could certainly argue that all these figures stood up for the most important values possible, even knowing what would and could happen to them.
But what could and should we do with smaller injustices and lower-key situations where perhaps the stakes are not as large-scale, but the principles of standing up or helping those who are vulnerable, and could be harmed or exploited, are the same? The phrase "choosing your battles implies that sometimes standing in the line of fire is not worth the risk, especially if the issue at hand is relatively trivial. But where and how do we draw that line, and how do we support instead of neglect those willing to take those risks?
Psychologist Catherine Sanderson has written in several books and articles about the concept of the “moral rebel,” which she designates as the personality type of people who are forthright enough to speak up against negative behaviors like corruption, cruelty, abuse, and more. She also discusses the contrasting personality of “bystanders,” people who don’t act despite witnessing horrible things happening in front of them. She notes how these people may actually agree with the moral rebel, but for various reasons feel they cannot join in their crusade. There are strong influences like peer pressure, obedience, following social norms, and perhaps even self-preservation and survival instincts while under active threat.
Accordingly, it may not be constructive to condemn or judge the inaction of individual bystanders, but to try to understand the systemic influences that cause them to fall in line. And in turn, it may be helpful to reflect on instances when you became a bystander but didn’t necessarily consciously intend to, to think about what you would truly stand for when you see someone else also standing up for what you believe in. The #Me-Too movement is a powerful example of what happens when a few brave souls speak their truth, and the silent masses decide that instead of being afraid, they will be inspired by those moral rebels. A cascade can be ignited in which the disempowered join in and also speak their truth.
In the meantime, it will still be difficult for the lonely few who do decide in various instances to stand up against dangerous and powerful entities who prefer to preserve the status quo and cover up evil deeds or indifference to people’s safety or humanity. We should listen to our consciences when we can, especially when we hear it resonate at the same frequency of another person’s truth. All the more reason to join their song and make it louder.
Sanderson, Catherine A. Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels. April 2020: Belknap Press.