“All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for good men to do nothing”
Sadly, the alleged recent scandal at Penn State reminds us of Burke’s words. Amidst the allegations, sterling reputations have been damaged; heroes diminished. We shake our heads and ask: ”How could THAT happen?” Often, we focus about the others in these sad but surprising situations because we think it’s about them. It is, but I will argue it’s about us, too.
Why We Believe What We Believe
These sad surprises come when our beliefs are violated. Perhaps the “other” encouraged our belief in either word or deed, but we chose to believe. Several scholars have published research on why we believe what we believe. As just one resource, see Michael Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain (2011). He describes our brains as “belief machines,” vulnerable to opinions, rituals and superstitions that range from common to bizarre. He describes how we construct our beliefs through a process he names as patternicity, or the propensity to find patterns in data, whether meaningful or not. Through a process called agenticity, we then infuse meaning and intent on our interpretation.
Uncle Sapien’s Legacy
We’ve been wired this way since our ancestors were dragging knuckles in the bush in Africa. An early example might have been when Uncle Sapien was wandering through the valley wearing red feathers when a saber tooth leapt at him. He accelerated to his fastest speed ever and escaped safely back to his cave. Later, he learned that Cousin Bipedal was wandering in the same meadow wearing blue feathers. Cousin Bipedal was not so swift and made a nice lunch for the saber tooth. What conclusion did Uncle Sapien come to? Red feathers saved him. He became a pro red feather guy.
How We Reinforce Beliefs
Once we have beliefs, we look for ways to reinforce them. One of the most powerful fortresses for beliefs is found in sharing among others. Just like our ancestors, we associate with families of origin then expand our tribe to include those we like and can trade with for survival and mutual benefit. Beliefs are strengthened when adopted by the tribe, and passed through as markers of belonging. Generations later, Uncle Sapien’s tribe believed red feathers were the way to go and those blue feather people were just stupid.
Our Tribes of Choice
Today, “communities” are our tribes of choice. We often join communities based on shared beliefs. As Kathyrn Schulz writes in Being Wrong (2011) “We often form our beliefs on the basis of communities, and our communities on the basis of our beliefs.” They act as systems to make shared beliefs powerful and pervasive, and the basis of this community as the right place to be.
Of course, the power of shared beliefs also produces beneficial results. Beliefs such as: ‘Love Thy Neighbor,” “Tell the Truth” and” Be Generous” result in societal good. Like many things, it’s when communities go to the extreme using beliefs as a fortress that leads to trouble.
At the extremes, communities label those who do not share their beliefs as ignorant or evil. They proclaim the red feather people as superior to those misguided blue feather people. And to be a red feather person, you must agree about their “specialness” and protect it.
The Ties that Bind
I argue, with support from Shermer, Schulz and others, that we underestimate the will it takes to challenge a shared belief from within a community. When we challenge, we violate bonds that may have taken generations to build. We question the very people whose love and admiration we seek. We plant doubt about the whole basis of the tribe when we wonder aloud if it was really about the red feathers after all. A weak link is possible; if this belief is wrong, what else might be wrong?
Why are otherwise good people silent when we expect them to speak up? Why don’t leaders take a stand for something different? Often, its because by rejecting a belief, we ask them to reject the very community that supports them, loves them, honors them. We not only ask them to give up a belief, we may ask them to give up everything, or so it feels to them. So, they stay silent.
What Can Be Different
One way to help others to find the courage to speak up, speak out, to stand up for the blue feather people, is to start with ourselves. Great moments are possible when we:
Engage in self-reflection about why you believe what you believe. What are your “red feather, blue feather” beliefs? You don’t need to change them, but understand their origins. Do you accept them by your choice, or because others expect it?
Encourage tolerance. Communities are typically stronger with a diversity of views, and certainly stronger when individuals effectively express differences. Be aware that it can be both lonely and scary to be the minority voice in the group. If you can’t agree with the dissenter, acknowledge their courage and right to speak up.
Accept yourself as more than a member of your tribes of choice. You are more than an alumnus, a fan, a political party member or church member. Be cautious about placing so much self-identity in your memberships that you find it difficult to disagree.
Show forgiveness. Schultz writes “Our capacity to tolerate error depends on our capacity to tolerate emotion.” When we express anger, disappointment or vilify a member of our community who honestly admits an error in judgment, we discourage the very behavior we claim to encourage. Acknowledge the difficulty of admitting error and give the grace we want for ourselves.
Our actions to reflect on origins of our beliefs, encourage tolerance, consider our identities and offer forgiveness will not prevent evil people from doing evil things. But it will create an encouraging climate for more good people to speak up.
For more about how we form and reinforce beliefs, read Michael Shermer’s book: The Believing Brain.
For a thoughtful reflection on why denial is such a powerful force, read Kathyrn Schulz book: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.
To watch Kathryn Schulz’ Ted Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html