Social justice: an action verb

21 Nov

This is a version of a talk I gave yesterday on a panel for the East Bay Independent Schools Association (EBISA) 2011 symposium “Educating, Teaching and Leading as a Political Act: Stay the Course”: 

If someone said something that sounded sexist in front of you, would you say anything?

In a 1999 Penn State study, 50% of students said they would “make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence” ( However, when researchers put students in that situation, only 16% spoke up. 

Why don’t people–people who by all accounts are socially aware and caring–do anything when something wrong  happens right in front of us? Why don’t we speak up when someone makes a sexist comment? Or even when we are confronted with evidence that children are being abused? 

In his analysis of the public reaction to the Penn State sex abuse scandal, columnist David Brooks warns us against our own “vanity”: our conviction that we would have behaved differently than head coach Joe Paterno, had we been standing in his sneakers.

Brooks offers some interesting research on human behavior to explain our striking tendency to act counter to our stated beliefs and intentions to do the right thing:

  • Normalcy bias is the belief that because something rarely–or, in our minds, never–happens, it will not happen and certainly is not happening right now. That something could be a blatantly discriminatory remark, child abuse, a hurricane (think Katrina) or a terrorist attack. Normalcy bias causes us not only to dismiss any warning signs or evidence of what is right in front of us, but consequently leaves us inadequately prepared practically and emotionally to deal with exceptional situations when they arise.
  • Motivational blindness is “the tendency to not notice the unethical actions of others when it is against our own best interests to notice” (Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, Max Bazerman & Ann Tenbrunsel). Like normalcy bias, this is a shockingly powerful and effective instinct to preserve oneself and one’s sense of safety in the world.
  • Bystander effect (Genovese syndrome) is the social phenomenon of collective passivity in an emergency situation: the theory is that the mere presence of another witness allows me to rationalize that there’s no real problem or reason to intervene (because surely they would do something, if something really needed to be done. Right?) The bystander effect is evidenced in 2008 National Crime Victimization Survey statistics that reveal that 68% of all physical assaults are witnessed by a third-party. In a gross contradiction of odds, the more bystanders, the more likely no one will do anything, according to research. 

Normalcy bias, motivational blindness and the bystander effect: these all speak to our powerful motivations to social maintenance, rather than justice–not because we are evil, but because we are human, biased and all too often unconscious of our conflicted values, motives and intentions.

If you’re thoroughly depressed at the light in which these phenomena cast your self-concept, the good news is: awareness makes possible transformation. At least, I like to think so. Knowing that we’re subject to these influences, we can notice them at work and discern when it’s necessary and safe to shake off their lulling effects and act. 

To that end, I would like bring at least one more influencing factor to awareness: our habit of making social justice an occasion, rather than an everyday practice. We tend to think of social justice in terms of high-profile events (Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring) and extreme causes (child slavery, genocide). But the truth is that we also live opportunities for social justice every day: in  meetings where the same voices always dominate, in partnerships where responsibility falls lopsidedly, and in conversations where a bigoted remark slips in.

It is in these everyday moments that social justice becomes habit and reflex, not just an emotional reaction, slogan or articulate (but impotent) idea. The fact is, whether or not we choose to make these everyday lessons in social justice matter, they do. We are learning and teaching about what is right every time we include or exclude voices in a meeting, every time we allow or protest an inequitable distribution of responsibility or profit, and every time we “make a stink” or just smile and nod when bigotry rears it head. And we learn and teach about social justice every time we get outraged at others but fail to act ourselves.

This is a radical relearning of social justice: not an abandonment of Occupy or Arab Spring, but a preparation for them, through daily, self-taught lessons that ingrain social justice as the ability to discern and act in a way empowers ourselves, others and our community as a whole to thrive. If we really mean to behave better than Joe Paterno or 84% of students when faced with something we know is wrong, we’ll need daily practice to get our mental, moral, social, emotional and physical muscles in shape.

* Thanks to my friend EB for the article.

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