Sweat the Small Stuff: On “Becoming Moral Rebels”

Sweat the Small Stuff: On “Becoming Moral Rebels” February 14, 2023

{Photo by Michele Princigalli for Scopio}

In a paradoxical saying, Jesus says, “…whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it .” Does this agree with your experience? Have you found that the hard practice of “losing your life in order to find it,” strengthening your ethical musculature by doing the difficult, right thing—even when it is costly—is how you’ve found your way?

When it comes to ethics, we generally start with tiny acts of moral courage and work our way up to the big things. In her book Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels, social-scientist Catherine Sanderson[1] explores why some people act bravely in the face of moral challenge. She asks: Why are some people moral rebels? Because, to state it baldly, most people simply are not. We so like to conform and follow peer pressure that doing so releases the same pleasure chemicals in the brain as chocolate and cocaine. Social science (as well as news anecdotes, accounts from history…) demonstrates that people by nature act much more like sheep morally—even if that means turning a blind eye to an elderly person being beaten or a young woman harassed or following the actions of an in-group when the group is engaged in offensive, deceitful, or even horrifying acts. This means all of us; not just those on “the other side”—no matter who the other side is for us. Unless we practice being moral rebels, gradually building up the capacity to stand strong for what we know deep inside to be right, probability explains we will likely go with the crowd, even if it leads to disturbing consequences ethically.[2]

Sanderson also argues it’s good practice to be part of a group that stands apart. This can begin in youth, with kids from distinctive groups sacrificing conformity and social approval in favor of faithfulness to an ethical or cultural tradition. In other words, it can be good exercise—ethically—to “lose your life in order to find it” by being part of a peculiar people. Moral rebels often come from social or religious groups who didn’t have it easy as young people; being who they were—having a unique moral identity—required that they face the challenges of standing out. This may be why second-generation immigrant young people are often strong leaders and tend to be more engaged than the general public in working for societal betterment. And it’s no accident that Mitt Romney—a Mormon—is a moral rebel on his side of the political aisle, and that a few Muslim women exemplify moral rebelliousness on their side of the political aisle. Moral rebels learn from a young age that building moral courage—like all exercise—is done one lap at a time. As Sanderson points out, no one begins by running a moral marathon. If you haven’t been willing to “lose your life in order to find it” little-by-little, then when the substantive moral challenge comes, you will fail. When measured by science or history, human behavior sadly demonstrates this. Can you think of a time when you stood against the tide and took an ethical stand? Or when you failed to follow your moral compass, following instead the moral confusion of the crowd? We have all seen (and been!) examples of both. The more we do one or the other, the stronger our ethical patterning will become.

Yet often the reality described above (ie, the fact that meeting painful ethical challenges with courage = strengthening moral rebelliousness) goes against our instincts to protect those we love from adversity or moral challenge. Often parents want to shield their kids from scary, difficult situations in which they stand out in a crowd and suffer, as a result, immediate rejection, longstanding social alienation, or even danger. But these situations create moral rebels. In a similar way, most of us want our loved ones—young or old—to be spared such challenges, whether in the workplace, in extended families, or in places of worship. In reality, though, taking the easy path does not serve our ethical musculature.

Again, practicing being a moral rebel, flexing the muscles needed to speak up or do the right thing even when it is hard, requires practice, repetition. It is all about tiny steps. So we should welcome opportunities to take those steps. If we take them, the small steps get easier in time, and so, in time, will the big steps—the ethical marathons we occasionally face in our lives. If we dismiss the tiny ethical challenges, telling ourselves they don’t matter (the “why sweat the small stuff?” dismissal) simply because they seem inconsequential, we rob ourselves. Sweating the small stuff is everything. This can mean speaking up when the perpetrator of a micro-aggression isn’t even aware they are being offensive because they lack self-awareness or consider their action a “harmless joke.” Speaking up may not change the other person. But over time, it will change us.

Wren, Winner of a 2022 Independent Publisher Awards Bronze Medal

[1] For an in-depth interview of Catherine Sanderson and treatment of the themes of this article, listen here.

[2] The classic demonstration of this from social science is often the “Milgram Study.” From Wikipedia: “The Milgram experiment(s) on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a ‘learner’. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly. Milgram first described his research in a 1963 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

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