Do you take responsibility for lapses in language? Edgar Wilson examines how a lack of accountability for what we say impacts ethics.
“Are you a bad person?”
“Of course not,” you say.
“You are a very good person.”
“Are you a thief?”
“But have you stolen anything?”
Just as humans have evolved all sorts of ways to cope in the world—from opposable thumbs to written language—people have developed a knack for rationalizing behavior in themselves that they would label negatively in others. Theft, for example: stealing something once, especially something minor, doesn’t warrant labeling in most people’s eyes; to be called a ‘thief’ requires making a habit of theft.
Thanks to this kind of rationalization, simply knowing better doesn’t stop us from actually doing better. Moral compromises and indiscretions are easily justified in hindsight.
So if knowing better doesn’t always lead to acting better, how can people combat potentially harmful (and hurtful) lapses of judgment?
Oliver Sheldon, of the Rutgers business school, authored a study looking at how individuals distinguish bad behavior from bad character. As he explained, people find it easier to excuse incidents of negative behavior if they view them as isolated:
“People often compartmentalize their experiences of temptation, making it much easier for them to rationalize the behavior. They might say, ‘Just because I took office supplies home for personal use one time, that doesn’t mean I’m a thief.”
His study forced certain participants to think of prior situations in which they behaved or were tempted to behave unethically, challenging them to acknowledge their potential character flaws. As a result, they tended to behave more ethically than participants who were not asked to recall such flawed behavior.
Of course, this was all presented in the context of business where money served as an incentive, but the outcome still suggested that self-reflection (using the past as a factor in determining future behavior) encourages people to act better. We like to see our lives as a narrative, in which we are the protagonist, the good guy. Bad behavior disrupts the ‘good guy’ narrative we prefer, or so the theory goes, and we will adjust future behavior to try to restore our preferred narrative, or self-image.
Dr. Sheldon suggested that reminders of temptation, or examples of undesirable behaviors, can help managers motivate their employees to be more self-aware about their own ethics. So how might this be extended to advancing social justice?
The kind of casual, day-to-day behavior and dialogues that perpetuate the marginalization of certain groups is more of a habit than a temptation. Insensitive language, unconscious assumptions, and especially dismissiveness toward the casual bigotry of others typically come under less scrutiny than would an act of theft, dishonesty, or other antisocial act.
But the antidote to this kind of habitual neglect comes down to the same habits of mind Dr. Sheldon’s research advocated: remember a time when you didn’t think before speaking, and chose language that was harmful to someone else; recall finding out, even after the fact, how you contributed to an environment that was intolerant, crude, or even threatening toward someone.
Maybe you made an off-color joke, or laughed a little too freely when someone else did. Or it came back to you after the fact that you made someone feel intimidated, rather than welcome. That your language meant something different than you intended, but people heard your words, and not your intentions. Just as that revelation changes how you will remember the situation in which it occurred, recalling it can make you more sensitive in new contexts, before you say or do something that will ostracize someone.
“Remember your moments of poor judgement, weakness of character and ungallantry.”
“Remember when you stopped being the good guy?”
“And don’t excuse yourself for it.”
“Are you a bigot? Of course not.”
“Have you ever used slurs, pejoratives, or other marginalizing terms?
Combatting the many ways prejudices and social inequality assert themselves in society is not always a matter of taking down institutional barriers and demonizing well-publicized incidents. Preserving inequality is not just a result of people failing to call out others for their prejudices, indiscretions, and ignorance. We need to be just as capable of recognizing the behavior in ourselves.
It is easier to forgive ourselves for weak moments than acknowledge how much harm a single moment can cause. Remembering those moments is key to preventing them from recurring.
Photo Credit: Jason-Morrison/Flickr