In my last article, I mentioned that I only knew one person who managed to see past the potential fun of a night spent dropping consonants in trackies and bling to consider the ethical implications of the ‘Chavs vs. Rahs’ theme. If other people felt slightly uncomfortable at the thought of the flagrant assertion of social superiority that this theme represents (see my previous article), they swallowed their misgivings so as not to be thought lame or overly intense. My friend not only had (has) a strong enough personality to openly voice his concerns, but was also prepared to trade in one of the major nights out of the year for a night alone in an empty house in a pretty much empty college, and to put up with days of hearing about all the fun he missed, all because he would not partake in something he thought wrong.This admirable display of strength of character got me thinking about other occasions, both historical and current, where people have assumed that something is right because the majority says so, neglecting to use their own consciences and reasoning to form their own judgement. The few who are strong-willed and morally grounded enough to avoid this pitfall and then dare to voice their controversial opinions are often met with derision. While they may be mocked or branded as lunatics during their time, however, one era’s oddballs and eccentric weirdos frequently become the heroes of another, later era, eventually praised for their foresight and clarity of ethical judgement even whilst growing up in systems whose every principle contradicted their ideas.
Although I realise that this is a huge jump in terms of seriousness (from chav-mocking to life and death issues), a glaring example of majority acceptance overriding individual ethical evaluation is the 300 year reign (in the US) of slavery, during which the few who questioned the system were violently opposed and even killed (in the case of the American Elijah Parish Lovejoy who was murdered in 1837).
Andrea Levy, a mixed-race British novelist, gave a fascinating talk in Newcastle last week about her latest work ‘The Long Song’ which chronicles life as a slave in British-dominated Jamaica. She pointed out that Britain did not send its psychopaths to the Caribbean to own and drive slaves, but normal, otherwise morally-upright people. She read multiple personal accounts in the British Library for her research and was struck by how quickly British emigrants to the Caribbean moved from their initial sense of horror at the slavery on first arriving – a horror which inspired them to attempt to question the methods and systems and to try to make those around them understand how terrible things were – to, in week two, not quite remembering what it was that had first offended them so much, to full acceptance of and participation in the system by week three.
This chilling evidence of the ease with which humans can convince themselves of the morality of something that benefits them makes the devotion of people like William Wilberforce, James Ramsay and Thomas Clarkson in their fight to end the slave trade even more remarkable. They made multiple sacrifices to keep climbing what Clarkson’s pal Wordsworth called (in his sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s achievements) the ‘obstinate Hill’. They maintained belief in their cause even when faced with assassination attempts, (such as that on Clarkson by sailors in Liverpool), repeated setbacks, (such as the crushing defeat of the first Bill of abolish the slave trade), and the loss of interest in abolition after the 1793 outbreak of war with France. Wilberforce’s attitudes to this war, owing to its delaying effect on abolition, nearly cost him his close friendship with Prime Minister William Pitt. These men (and women) managed to come to and maintain their own judgements on something that their world declared to be ethical, despite the personal costs.
Further examples of admirable figures whose views were shunned at the time but who remained pushing against the tide of popular opinion were anti-Nazi figures in Germany such as ‘The White Rose Group’ of Munich University students, the two leaders of which were executed, and also various British anti-imperialist figures who, even if they did not risk their lives, perhaps risked their livelihood by holding controversial views and advocating actions that would weaken their own country.
On a more general and more current theme, there is evidence everywhere, particularly in largely-conformist Durham, of the strength of character necessary to be able to go against common opinion about anything, from admitting to being religious when it’s generally considered so uncool, to holding no-sex-before-marriage views, or even just admitting that you’re actually not that keen on clubbing, drinking or Loveshack. Obviously these aren’t life or death issues but still suggest a certain amount of obliviousness to the systems to which we conform. We all like to take the moral high ground when we look back at appalling sexism, racism and human rights abominations, but would we really have been one of these admirable few who risked everything to stand up against their friends and family for what they knew to be right? Would we even look beyond the widely accepted opinion to assess a situation or societal norm for ourselves?
Our tendency towards obedience and conformity was demonstrated by the tests conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1962, where volunteers were told to inflict increasing pain on a victim. The ‘victims’ on the other side of the wall were in fact actors but the volunteers did not know this, and despite looking anguished they continued to deliver the volts, simply because an authority figure told them to. 60% of subjects were fully obedient and this figure was even higher in other countries and with people from other walks of life. Again, as Levy noted regarding slavery, these were normal people, not psychopaths, and the authority figures had no particular leverage over them – they would have suffered nothing if they had refused.
Today we casually state that anyone who didn’t try to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust and slavery are as guilty as those who were actively involved, without considering that perhaps those people who did nothing had blindly accepted the view of the masses to be correct, without realising that anything was morally wrong – a lesson for us all in the need to build our own ethics rather than adopt those of others. Forming and maintaining moral views that go against the norm may not make us universally adored, but as Oscar Wilde said in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’: ‘To be popular, one must be a mediocrity’.