Moral Courage

There’s a lot of debate just now suggesting men must challenge other men on their sexist behaviour.  Whilst I agree and feel comfortable in my own ability to do so, it’s not as simple as that, especially for men who want to help but lack skills or reassurance that they will be supported.  This is especially the case within all male groups.

I have written in the past about the need to create spaces for conversation, but I now want to focus on what types of conversations we can be having withy boys and men which in my view will turn them into what Professor Catherine Sanderson calls ‘moral rebels’.

Let’s start with some good news.  A recent survey compiled for a Scotland Tonight programme revealed that more than three-quarters (78%) of men said that they would intervene if they saw a woman being harassed.  That’s a great start but we know when men are in groups this will likely fall.  So, the question for society is how do we equip men with the tools to do what they say they would do if they witnessed sexual harassment?

Whether standing up to a school bully, challenging a colleague who makes a sexist comment in the workplace or speaking to a friend who posts a homophobic comment online, what is clear, is that all require a good dose of moral courage.

Past research suggests that those who feel able to show moral courage generally feel good about themselves.  These individuals tend to feel self-confident in their judgement, their values and ability.  These traits help in dealing with the tendency to feel a need to fit in, to conform. 

Many of us in group situations when we observe a problematic situation often think to themselves “What’s the point?”.  Social loafing is the term used to describe this response. When it comes to those who do intervene the opposite is the case.  Those who feel able to step in believe that their actions will make a difference.

Empathy is a key trait which can help people intervene.  We can be motivated for ‘self’.  Watching fund raising programmes like ‘Children in Need’ can provide moments where we will feel uncomfortable.  To address this, we often pick up the phone and donate.  The result is we feel less guilty.  The benefit has in many ways outweighed any cost. 

The other is just that and is seen as ‘other focused’ which is motivated by care and empathy, even when a risk is incurred.  People who are able to visualise a family member, a friend in a situation are more likely to intervene to stop a situation from progressing. 

Empathy is often developed through interactions with different groups of people.  Being able to walk in the shoes of others is key and an important trait that supports intervention.

Those who feel able to intervene as discussed above often have a good sense of self, but there are often other factors.  Many have seen pro-social behaviours being role-modelled in their lives.  Many of the great civil rights activists from the United States had parents who were in the very early days of the movement.  This was the same for those in Germany who were involved in rescuing the Jews in the 1940’s.

Many of these individuals have relevant skills what has supported them in showing moral courage.  Those of us who have first aid skills will often feel more confident than those who don’t have skills.  Even have basic skills has been found to make the difference.

At this in the UK the anger around the Sarah Everard case is very raw.  I hear many men, who already see these issues using words like “Men need to challenge other men”.  I understand the place where this comes from however, I also feel that our approach to engaging men is so important.  Tony Porter from A Call to men in the United States told me many years ago that to engage men we need to meet them where they are at. I totally agree.

So, here’s some advice as to how we work to engage and work with boys and men on these issues.  

How can we help the many boys and men who care deeply about these issues?  Here’s some ideas:

  • Believe in change – When you believe people can change you are more likely to have a go.  It’s so important to help people understand the cost of silence and persuade them that their actions count.  Talk about how you changed your mindset.   Tell your story.
  •  Learn skills and strategies – As well believing in change we also need the skills to help us foster moral courage.  How do we approach this subject with other men?  What do we say?  Whilst some men need to be challenged directly, this approach presents potential confrontation and loss of friendships.  Both these inhibitors often prevent non abusive men stepping up allowing abusive men to act without challenge.  So, we need to learn what to say, how to distract a situation, who can we speak to and who our allies are.
  •  Practice, practice and practice – Creating the space to practice these skills is also key.  We can do that in groups with our classmates or work-colleagues.  We can do that on our own.  US psychologist Dr Phillip Zimbardo calls this the ‘Heroic Imagination’.  Rehearse in your own time your response to a problematic situation. Be ready.
  •  Sweat the small stuff – We tend to show interest more when we hear about the murders or other incidents that make us angry.  This is way too late.  What about the language?  What about the jokes, the banter?  It’s here that focus needs to be.  Violence in its physical form has to start somewhere.  Also, it can be a safer place to intervene. Developing moral courage is helped by knowledge of the issue. When we build our knowledge we can learn to spot problems in the behaviours of others. Helping men make the connection between say sexist language and sexual assault is vital.
  •  Foster Empathy – I covered this above but it’s key.  Talk about the impact on a victim.  Imagine a friend or a family member being impacted by violence.  Even a work colleague.  The ground swell of anger around the Sarah Everard incidents tells me that many saw their daughter or another woman that they care about within this story.  Whilst we should care about all human beings, I think making it personal is a good place to start.
  •  Find friends – We are better together surely?  Find your allies.  When you talk about this work, people will be listening and will likely join in.  This is why it’s so important for men who get these issues to speak up more. 
  •  Develop the winning culture– Organisations can communicate what’s expected from staff.  The consistent reinforcement of these pro-social values communicates many.  Peer mentoring is something that has worked in other sectors such as health and the airline industry.  Remember you don’t have to win over everyone.  Studies suggest that 25% of a group can be a tipping point.

My hope in the above is that you will be able to use the above points to speak with boys and men on these issues.  Demanding someone acts isn’t an effective tool to prevent an issue. 

We need boys and men as allies not bystanders.  A bystander is never neutral.  They are either passive or they are active.  We have good men out there who want to help.  Let’s help them.

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