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What Michael Moore Really Teaches Us About Political and Social Change In America - Part 3

August 2nd, 2007 by Howard Ditkoff

Moral Courage: A Required Virtue for Improving Our Society (Part 3 of 8)

Note: This is Part 3 of an eight-part series. You may want to start at Part 1 of the series, Summary and Table of Contents.

Psychological Dissonance: The Cost of Keeping Quiet

In our society, we have a great number of “elephants in the room” – unjust events or conditions that take place in plain daylight, yet are often not spoken about or confronted openly. Corporate leaders commit scandalous acts while their workers must keep quiet. Billions of dollars are funneled into a war based on highly suspect intelligence, while citizens are told it is unpatriotic to question. Our culture teems with violence in its many forms, in our international relations, in our streets, and in our homes, while we continue to portray a polished image of polite prosperity. It is often, for various reasons, taboo or dangerous to acknowledge these issues as they are occurring.

But when we live with such issues in plain sight, yet say and do nothing, it creates a disturbing disconnect between reality and perception. As that disconnect grows, it takes a widespread psychological toll on individuals and society. It engenders a deep conscious and unconscious sense of distrust and disempowerment. It necessitates the formation of strong defense mechanisms in order to emotionally deny, minimize or rationalize the conditions that are seen with our very eyes. And it creates a vicious cycle in which, as the victims and witnesses are further silenced, the perpetrators are able to extend their abuses even further.

Moral Courage: Self-Trust and Preparing for Delayed Acceptance

When we ourselves are in a situation in which we are aware of an injustice, though it may seem extremely obvious to us, we often don’t speak out due to fear. Breaking the cycle of growing dissonance requires the development of moral courage – the willingness and ability to speak out and take action on injustices we perceive despite our fears.

One common fear is that, despite our perception and the facts we may have researched, we may be wrong. We don’t fully trust ourselves to accurately understand what is really going on. After all, who are we to question things by which so many others seem untroubled?

One aspect of moral courage, then, is the willingness to trust our gut feeling – that still, small voice inside us - enough to follow it and at least do more investigation in order to determine if our initial intuition was accurate. If we do find evidence to support our intuition that there is a condition that needs to be addressed, moral courage then involves believing our own results enough to take first steps toward a resolution, even if others disagree or remain silent.

Another fear we may have is that even if we are correct, we will be punished or attacked for what we say. The truth is, this may well happen. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then the laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” A second aspect of moral courage involves understanding that process, and being prepared for the fact that even if we are right, others may not accept our views, perhaps for many years. We must be ready, in the interim, to withstand the possible repercussions of staying true to our beliefs.

Both of these aspects of moral courage are tremendous burdens to carry, but are necessary if we are to begin breaking the cycle of silent resignation. The reward is in the personal growth and self-respect that comes from overcoming our fears and becoming more authentic.

The Importance of Developing Moral Courage as a Virtue In Our Society

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led America out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II after a direct attack on our country by the Japanese, told us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Can you imagine current American leaders in 2007 saying that? To the contrary, they have worked to instill fear and used it as a tool of manipulation. The result is a very compliant populace that has learned helplessness, and is often afraid to speak out even when faced with “elephants in the room.”

If we are going to improve American society and the world, we must focus on helping people once again overcome fear and promote moral courage as a valued quality.

It was just this type of awareness that led me to focus more deeply in my own life on personal development and to work with clients through my company to help them build the self-knowledge and strength to trust themselves and remain resilient in the face of often less than accepting circumstances.

Developing Moral Courage in our Children

One place that we can start promoting moral courage, rather than conformity, as a virtue is with our children. And, like it or not, this may involve supporting their growing autonomy even in relation to us.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving writes:

“It is the well educated who will improve society - and they will improve it, at first, by criticizing it, and we are giving them the tools to criticize it. Naturally, as students, the brighter of them will begin their improvements on society by criticizing us.”

Allowing and even encouraging children to question and confront parents and teachers – albeit in a responsible and respectful manner - is a wonderful way to help assure that they don’t later become compliant targets for anyone from peers to their media and government.

Celebrating and Promoting Models of Moral Courage

Another great place to start developing moral courage in our society is through taking greater note of examples of moral courage, whether in books, movies, history, our current world or even in our own lives. We can find examples in all of these places of people speaking out and taking action even when it was unpopular or frightening. Some are major historical figures like Gandhi. Others are lesser known figures from today, such as Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich who, as mayor of Cleveland, took a stand and refused to sell the city’s municipal power utility - a decision that placed the savings the entity brought to the average resident over the benefits the sale would have brought to powerful corporate interests in the city. At the time he was voted out of office for doing what he felt was right in spite of tremendous pressure against him. Years later he was redeemed, winning an award from the very city council that had once stood against him and being voted into the U.S. Congress.

My favorite example of moral courage has long been Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the person I admire most. King spoke courageously about the huge elephants of segregation and oppression despite daily threats to his life and constant physical and verbal attacks, all without resorting to retaliation. But almost all of us have at least a small example in our lives where we reached a breaking point and spoke out about something to our family, friends, our boss or the public, about which we had been afraid to open up. Remembering those small moments of moral courage, we can build on them.

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