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Moral courage

The summer after freshmen year, I went to a summer camp in China. Our group was made of very different people, but one girl stood out amongst the group. She was awkward, often missed the point, and wasn’t particularly friendly. Together, we started excluding her from various activities, not respecting her in conversation, and talking behind her back. A couple people in particular were quite intentional in their bullying, while the rest of us let it happen. Eventually, she felt so left out that she stayed in her room all day, even on group outings, and didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the trip. Many times, I felt an urge to speak up in that girl’s defense. Here was a clear case of bullying and unfair treatment, and it would have been a clear decision to stand up for her.

But for some reason, I didn’t. I stayed silent, went with the flow and minded my own business. Many of us had several chances to act, but no one ever did. This inaction became one of the things I am most ashamed of to this day.

Over the break, I read an interesting article about moral courage. It discussed how we all have a “moral imagination.” This imagination helps us picture a world where some or many injustices are corrected, depending on the unique set of values we personally endorse. “Moral courage” is the courage to act to make that imagined world a reality, in spite of the negative consequences that may result.

One moral imagination I share is a world with no bullying, where people accept each other without gossip, insults and ill will. When I first came to the United States at the age of five, my english was weak, and that was often exploited at school and on the bus. Many know me as an RA of three years; it is that desire for people to feel accepted that motivates me to be an RA. But that summer, did I have the moral courage to pursue this vision? I am ashamed to say that I did not.

I often wondered what motivated my inaction. It wasn’t ignorance or a lack of purpose; I knew what I should have done. Perhaps it was because my Chinese parents always taught me to not get involved and bring trouble on myself. Perhaps I was afraid that the group would instead direct their bullying at me. Perhaps I didn’t want to be known as “that guy” who doesn’t go with the flow and might get associated with the outsider that was bullied in the first place.

Perhaps it was fear.

The more I thought about this, the more I concluded that my inaction was caused by fear, particularly the fear of having my values openly criticized. Confronting a situation out of moral courage means that I am publicly putting forth my deeply held values and beliefs, and using them to call out someone who will most likely rebuke them.

There is less emotional vulnerability needed when getting into a physical fight. Even if physical injuries result, they are usually on the surface level and will hurt for only as long as they physiologically should. However, confronting someone out of moral courage requires that you are being vulnerable with your values, knowing that instead of being validated, they will instead be criticized. This kind of injury can sting much more than a physical bruise.

I believe that this is the primary fear that keeps us from acting in situations requiring moral courage. Instead of acting, we rationalize our inaction through a variety of excuses. The problem, however, results when this becomes the norm. Every time we see bullying without speaking up (or any injustice without acting) we add to that culture of fear and inaction. According to a national survey, over 3.2 million students each year are victims of bullying and 40% are aware of hazing activities (not necessarily on Duke’s campus). Yet 95% of those who are aware do not report them.

I don’t need to tell anyone to have moral imagination; everyone already has it. I don’t need to tell anyone to have moral courage; everyone already desires it. Rather, I want to discuss and understand the fear that keeps us from exhibiting that moral courage, whether it is through daily activities or life-changing decisions. We can recognize how uncomfortable it is to be vulnerable to criticism and find the inner strength to resist it.

Fear stops us from wielding our power as part of the majority to look out for those in the minority. Fear keeps us from reaching out to victims and publicly including the excluded. Fear keeps us from weathering the criticism required to change the culture. But if we recognize and understand this fear, perhaps once in every few incidents, we will find the moral courage to overcome it. Then we can change a culture of inaction, not just for bullying and hazing, but for many issues like racism, sexism, socioeconomic fairness, and homophobia.

I’m not trying to make excuses to justify my spineless inaction. I also know that it’s out of place for me to encourage others to show moral courage when I lack it myself. After all, there are leaders, Noble Peace Prize winners, and fellow peers who can teach so much more about moral courage than I can. However it is precisely me, someone guilty of inaction, who needs to confront my fears instead of leaving it for the experts. I became deeply troubled when I faced this barrier to acting on one of my values. But now, I can resolve to start confronting my fears so I do not hold myself back from making my moral imagination a reality.

James Tian is a Trinity senior. This is his first column of the semester.

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