The future depends on mastering the art of positive courage.
Lappé Frances Moore | November 2008 issue
Like a lot of us, I keep asking myself, How did we get into this mess? Since humans have innate needs and capacities for cooperation, empathy and fairness, which science now confirms, why does so much suffering and destruction continue? For many, the answer seems obvious: Humans just aren’t good enough; we need to become better people; we need to overcome selfishness and evolve into more caring and cooperative creatures. I disagree. Since these positive qualities are hard-wired in virtually all of us, maybe what we really need more of is something else: backbone.
Have you ever considered we’re too cooperative? Maybe we’re hard-wired to follow others, even if we should say “no way.”
The infamous Stanley Milgram experiments of the early 1960s’ in which people were instructed to administer electric shocks to others have recently been redone, amped down, literally, to conform to new ethics standards. Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University in California replicated the format: subjects are instructed to send “shocks” they believe are real to induce learning in a confederate. More than half conform, delivering up to a maximum 150 volts even after subjects cry out to stop the experiment. We’re all likely to wonder, Would I be among that go-along majority?
Interviewing participants afterward, Burger uncovered a clue, reported in The New York Times: “Those who stopped generally believed themselves to be responsible for the shocks, whereas those who kept going tended to hold the experimenter accountable.” The implications are huge. In disempowering societies like my own wherein most think government listens not to us but to the interests of concentrated wealth, and few workers are in unions enabling them to experience a sense of agency one would expect to find widespread cruelty. Too many people feel someone else is in charge; we’re powerless… thus, unaccountable. So we go along, abiding racial slurs in the office and poverty so deep that, in the U.S., for example, one in 10 people is relying on food stamps this year despite the fact that enough food is available to make us all obese.
Another study, reported in 2006 in Science, points to a related aspect of innate tendencies that helps explain why cruelty is rampant, even though humans are empathetic. The bottom-line finding, says senior author Bettina Rockenbach, is that when people share standards and some “have the moral courage to sanction others, informally,”a society “manages very successfully.”
The key here is what I think of as “moral courage”to enforce consequences for those who hurt others. Groups “with few rules attract many exploitative people who quickly undermine cooperation,”says Rockenbach in the Times. “By contrast, communities that allow punishment, and in which power is distributed equally, are more likely to draw people who, even at their own cost, are willing to stand up to miscreants.”
This research suggests successful societies depend on several conditions by which people feel accountable and this only happens when we feel we have social power. Closely related is the existence of sanctions for inflicting harm, and the broad dispersion of power. This is critical because without it, a wide sense of agency isn’t possible and if power is held by the honchos, who keeps them in check?
What I take from all this is pretty simple: Our future depends more on cultivating courage than goodness. Do you know anyone who wants others to go hungry? Of course not. But how many of us have a hard time speaking out in face-to-face settings? Many do. We fear humiliation and offending others.
In these do-or-die times, the future depends on how quickly we grasp that we must keep power dispersed. As it’s dispersed, more of us come to feel accountable. We must master the art of positive courage. We can, for example, reward our kids from the earliest ages for speaking out against injustice.
To call forth courage in the wider culture, we can actively protect and publicly reward and honor truth-tellers willing to risk humiliation or even their livelihoods to uphold our shared values of fairness and honesty. We can work on ourselves, checking our tendency to go along with what we should not.
Preaching generosity and cooperation alone won’t get us there. Evidence-driven thinking about the real challenge of our species cultivating gutsiness is a first step toward the world almost everyone wants.
Frances Moore Lappe is a democracy advocate and author of many books, including Diet for a Small Planet and Getting a Grip.