Silent Moral Courage-Olympic Flashbacks

When thinking about leading it’s not uncommon to think about moral courage. Moral courage is the ability to do the “right” or “moral” thing even when that can cost you significantly. You may need to push back on policies or movements that are popular, supported by authority figures, or encoded in law. It will most likely require you to be a lonely voice that makes those engaged in the immoral and wrong-headed action uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Exhibiting moral courage requires humility. A leader that exercises moral courage isn’t simply pushing their opinions around about what they believe is right, they’re speaking the truth even when doing so might make them uncomfortable. Think of the white leaders during the time of the Jim Crowe south who benefitted from the system yet spoke out against it because, in the end, they knew that to do so was what mattered for justice to prevail.

An example of moral courage that has stayed with me for some time has to do with an Australian man named Peter Norman. Peter Norman isn’t a name most people recognize. In fact, when someone thinks of moral courage they most often think of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and numerous others who suffered for justice. Their fame emerges from the fact they stood up against injustice at great personal cost. Yet, so did Peter Norman. In fact, he not only lost a great deal because of his willingness to stand up against injustice, but he also did so without the recognition and fame his fellow protestors got from protesting the same acts at the very same time. He died without ever being publically acknowledged for his courage or his great accomplishments as an athlete.

At the Olympics in 1968 three men emerged as winners of the 200-meter race. Two of them were black and one of them white. Two of them were from the United States, and one from Australia. Tommy Smith, the first US Athlete won the Gold, and John Carlos the second US athlete took the bronze in the 200-meter race. They knew that they had this small space in time to use their brief fame to make a statement against the rampant racism in the United States and around the world. The third athlete who was not a citizen of the United States nor a black man was told by these two athletes that they intended to make a political statement during the medal ceremony, one of which was to raise their black-gloved hands in the air as a way to protest racism. Peter saw the importance of this moment and knew he could not just stand silent at this important moment and asked how he could show solidarity with his fellow sprinters. All of this occurred only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr so the whole world was aware of the racial struggles occurring in the United States. Peter also was acutely aware of the racial struggles and discriminating policies of his own country and wanted to give voice to the marginalized people there as well. He was strongly influenced by his religious beliefs (He was a member of the salvation army that believed deeply in the equality and dignity of all people) and felt compelled to be a part of this moment at this time.

While Carlos and Smith are known for the fact they raised their hands in protest that elicited boos, sneers, and angry insults from the crowd, Norman also was looked down on because he chose to wear the badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights during the ceremony. After the protest, Smith, and Carlos were rushed from the stadium and removed from the US Olympic team. They went home to the United States, experienced a great backlash for what many believed was a sign of complete disrespect, and received death threats. This indeed is an example of moral courage. Later, both men were re-accepted into the Olympic fold and had significant athletic careers. However, Peter Norman was not so lucky.

Peter Norman was severely punished by the Australian sports establishment. He remained one of Australias greatest runners qualifying over and over again for the Olympics but the establishment would not let him run. Norman suffered from depression, alcoholism, and an addiction to pain medication and died as a forgotten figure in Australian athletics. He never was able to re-establish his career as a sprinter and never participated in sports on any significant level after that one act of protest for justice. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Australian government apologized for how Peter Norman was treated. Peter Norman certainly suffered for standing up for what is right and just. Moral courage cost him a great deal.

I look around today and I see so many public figures beating their chests and saying whatever they need in order to appeal to and be accepted by those in power. Standing for moral principles seems to be less and less popular in a world that finds morality and principles relative to whatever the mood of the nation is. Yet, I take comfort and inspiration knowing that there are always people like Peter Norman who will silently suffer and be ostracised for a cause not directly related to them. People who have the moral courage to stand for what is right and just even if they’re not those suffering from the injustice simply because their principles dictate that they must be a witness to what is just. These are the people that will continue to be the conscious of an organization and a nation. Thank God we have them.

Why People Ignore the Facts – How Your Mind Works

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Why is it so easy for people to ignore science?  We have a pandemic tearing its way through the world and a number of national leaders from a vast array of countries are saying things like, “There is no need to wear masks”, or “This isn’t as bad as the media is making it sound.”  Cries of fake news, lying statistics, and corrupt political parties (Of course it’s the “other” party who is corrupt) are all blamed for the current situation.  It isn’t just in the political domain that these cries of fabrication come from.  Religious individuals and faith institutions also believe they cannot gather at full capacity and sing their favorite hymns (without masks of course) because they’re being targeted by the liberal factions of society trying to keep “Jesus” out of the public sector.  Some would argue that people today have lost their minds, but I will argue quite the opposite in this post.  People haven’t lost their minds, they simply are ignoring how their minds work and succumbing to all the traps that a lack of critical thinking exhibits in these passionate and hyper-emotional times.  We don’t ignore the facts as much as use them to create a narrative we like that supports our unconscious biases.  

People have an innate need to make sense of the world.  They have to have an answer to the question “Why” and when they can’t get one they find themselves in a psychologically uncomfortable state.  When we’re confronted with unconnected and diverse facts concerning a particular situation we make sense of these facts by creating a narrative based on our innate biases and tendencies.  These biases and tendencies combined with confusing or contradictory pieces of information force us to make sense of the world based on our “gut” feelings.  However, those gut feelings can often distort the hard facts, lead us to make poor decisions, and cause us to say some pretty misguided things. By simply wording something in two different ways you can force someone to rely on their gut feeling and passionately defend a position they think very different from another only to find if they look closely, both options say the same thing.  They get so caught up in the peripheral information they ignore the facts.  We rarely use logic and critical thinking to make our decisions in these cases, we simply go with “how we feel.”  Let me give you an example.  Read the following scenarios and tell me which one you would select if you had to undergo medical treatment:

Imagine you are a patient with lung cancer.  Which of the following two options would you prefer?

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 90 live through the post-operative period, 68 are alive at the end of the first year, and 34 are alive at the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, all live through the treatment, 77 are alive at the end of one year, and 22 are alive at the end of five years.

When given these two options 44% of the people in a study said they would most certainly select radiation over surgery.  Yet, watch what happens when we just change the wording a little:

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 10 die during surgery or the post-operative period, 32 die by the end of the first year, and 66 die by the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, none die during treatment, 23 die by the end of one year, and 78 die by the end of five years.

When I change the wording in the scenarios, if you’re like most people, you will actually prefer surgery over radiation therapy because the numbers start to scare you.  In fact, after making the above changes only 18% choose radiation therapy over surgery simply because of how the option is verbally presented.  If you look closely there is no difference in the numbers.  The statistics stay the same.  The facts are the same and objectively you get the same results.  Most people see that first set of numbers (How many people live or die) and make a gut decision.  When we’re dealing with survival, we become biased and let our gut make the decision instead of using the mental resources that would allow us to focus on the facts.

It’s a simple error in thinking that causes us to say and do things that are just wrong.  I could go over a myriad of other processes our mind uses to bypass critical thinking and quickly make decisions but I don’t have the space to do so.  In psychology, we call these processes heuristics.  They help us think quickly, and for the most part, can be helpful, but can also cause us to make errors.  These factors along with the fact psychological studies demonstrate we have a “self-serving bias” where we actively seek information that already supports our opinion and ignore that which contradicts it makes for a perfect storm.  However, you can correct this if you are brave enough to do so.  Daniel Kahneman writes in his book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” a simple remedy to help us think more critically:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 (our intuitive mind) is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2 (your rational conscious critical thinking mind).”

If you find yourself making a decision or judgment hastily, are hyper-emotional about the situation, or being a lazy thinker, stop.  Create “cognitive space” so you can think through what you need to consider.  In a world where statements can be broadcast across the globe from a keyboard in a matter of minutes, the more often we slow down and think about something before talking about it is essential.  It’s the best way to truly appreciate the facts and get past your desire to justify how you feel.  If we still care about the truth, we need to train our minds to search for it in the best way possible.