Everyday heroes have “courageous conversations”
On October 5th I heard a rousing, riveting speech at the University of Akron by the famous social psychologist, Dr. Phil Zimbardo, who is best known for his 1971 Stanford Prison experiment in which ordinary college students morphed into monstrous, abusive prison guards in a role play situation that rapidly turned foul. Through a non-profit organization founded six years ago, Dr. Z has been promoting pro-active behavior throughout the world, teaching young people to stand up to their peers when faced with negative group behavior and to transform compassion into heroism. He encourages positive deviance!
Zimbardo’s call to engage in “courageous conversations” is the aspect of the heroic transformation that most resonated with me. To perform a heroic physical act such as taking a bullet to protect others is obviously rare in everyday life compared to opportunities to stop bullying. I used to think that bullies are only immature high school kids, but bullying by older adults in retirement communities has become a recognized social problem.
Perhaps the most common opportunity to be courageous is to voice the opposite opinion when we hear colleagues, neighbors or friends make jokes or sarcastic remarks about “tree huggers,” religious or cultural groups, the LGBT population or anyone who wants to tighten gun control laws. Or what if at heart you are an animal rights activist and you hear people brag about hunting for sport or what if you hear the rah, rah about football from your buddies but your opinions have changed and you see football with its rampant head injuries as a celebration of aggression not much different than watching Roman gladiators in ancient times? In such situations, I agree with Zimbardo that we need to examine why we remain silent.
At a class reunion recently one of my former classmates bragged openly about his many expeditions of big game hunting in Africa, killing lions so as to save them from poachers! If the lion could talk, he might not see the value of being killed legally.
Zimbardo says that even people with strong convictions hesitate to speak up and voice their disagreement or simply say that joke or remark makes them uncomfortable because we get embarrassed for doing the right thing and we don’t like to not fit in even if for a moment.
I know what he means. As an animal rights activist, I did speak up to the big game hunter who had been a leader I had admired in my high school class. I told him I am shocked at his pastime and find it hard to believe how opposite we have become, that I have difficulty now killing insects or having mice exterminated. He vehemently defended his position, then before I could say anything more, turned and walked away. I doubt we will speak again at future reunions. No one else in the group surrounding us said a word to the game hunter although two told me privately they too were shocked and appalled. Being a social deviant isn’t easy. Zimbardo is right. But with practice, like anything else, it becomes easier.