Light through the darkness

Courage clads itself in a million different cloaks. 

Sometimes it wears the fierce determination of the lone protester in Tiananmen Square; a small, lonely figure pitted against an army of tanks. Resolute. Determined. Defiant. An iconic moment frozen in time.

 

But courage doesn’t always roar. 

As Mary Anne Radmacher reminds us, sometimes it’s the little voice at the end of the day that says,
‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’

 

One such tomorrow arrived on a cool December day, in a busy downtown shopping district, where three unremarkable black women had boarded a bus home.

It should have been an unremarkable trip. They had ridden this bus, on this very route, many times before and nothing suggested today would be any different. There was a chill in the air, but also the cheerful sights and sounds of Christmas, and at least one of the women was deep in thought, planning her Christmas shopping. 

All three had dutifully made their way into the belly of the bus, taking care, as countless times before, to avoid the whites-only section, sitting down only when they reached the front row of the designated coloured section. 

The row was full. Two of the women sat cheek to jowl on the left; the third, a shy, softly spoken seamstress, was on the other side of a narrow aisle, next to a black man squeezed up against the window.

Three stops later, their ordinary, unremarkable journey came to an end. A white man boarded the bus and finding no vacant seats in the whites-only section, chose to stand. When the driver noticed, he stopped the bus and approached the four black passengers in the front row of the coloured section, ordering them to move further back.

Image of Rosa: www.timetoast.com

The seamstress, of course, was Rosa Parksthe 42-year-old civil rights activist whose singular act of resistance on that day sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in turn galvanised fractured, sporadic protests around the country into an orchestrated civil rights movement that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped topple formalised segregation in the US. 

Later, Parks would recall:

“When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night. I felt all the meanness of every white driver I’d seen who’d been ugly to me and other black people through the years I’d known on the buses in Montgomery.” 

Rosa Parks’ story is known and celebrated around the world. Within this story of courage and heroism, however, lies another more complicated and deeply uncomfortable story – the story of the three other passengers in Rosa Parks’ row.

History has not recorded their names, and little is known about them, other than the devastating detail that while Parks refused to move, they all rose and moved to the back without dissent. We are also told that some of the other passengers deeper in the black section got off the bus to avoid the looming confrontation.

Cushioned in the comfort of righteous hindsight, it’s easy to condemn their inaction, and convince ourselves that we, at that moment, would have acted differently. That we would have been #better. Braver.  

We probably would not have.

No matter how ideologically motivated or incensed we might have become, social proof suggests that most of us – the vast majority, in fact, would have followed the three black passengers to the back of the bus or, worse, got off the bus and left Rosa Parks to fend for herself.

It is in our DNA.

William Glasser argues that all human beings are driven by five genetic needs: Survival. Power. Freedom. Love. And belonging.

 

It is this craving for belonging – an innate herd mentality – that fuels much of what we do, and an extraordinary amount of what we don’t do.

How else does one explain the inexplicable: A century of state-sanctioned and citizen-enabled slavery in the US, or – closer to home – 50 years of apartheid rule? Or, more recently, the modern scourges of crime and political thuggery, which not only go largely unpunished but hardly move the needle anymore in terms of our collective or individual outrage.

From the state capture of our country; to Steinhoff; to gender-based violence – our social and political landscapes are littered with the detritus of power left unchecked and unchallenged. 

Why do we allow it? Why did so few of us speak out? Why are there so few true whistle-blowers willing to expose crime and corruption until the worst of the damage has been done? Part of the answer lies in an insidious, self-perpetuating cycle of action and inaction that plays out all around us, every day.

All too often, our need to belong, to be a part of the pack and to enjoy the protection and approval of our peers, overwhelms our moral convictions.

We are pre-programmed to choose the road of least resistance, not the one that puts us at odds with those around us. We are born into herds and we spend our lives trying to remain there.

But here’s the kicker: The more we act as a herd, the less we are able to identify our behaviour as herd-like, especially when that behaviour is negative or harmful to others. Social proof – which Robert Cialdini defines as the tendency to see an action as more appropriate the more people are engaged in it – narrows our field of vision.

We begin to explain the inexplicable; excuse the inexcusable; defend the indefensible. 

Herd. Social proof. Herd. Rinse and repeat.

Social and economic activists point to this phenomenon as one of the reasons South Africa has failed to break the back of two of its greatest social and economic crises: gender-based violence and corruption. Regardless of the various root causes, enough of us are perpetrating or enabling it for it to have become normative. And in this, we have become the social proof that protects the behaviour we rail against in private. 

We condemn violence, but our reluctance to intervene creates safe enclaves for abusers among us. We abhor discrimination, but our fear of causing offence or jeopardising business relationships quashes transformation where it is most desperately needed. 

Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s was a hotbed of racial conflict and herd-like hatred and violence. Undoubtedly, the men and women who shared the Cleveland Avenue Bus with Rosa Parks on that December day would have experienced it first hand.

They would have been ordered, many times, to use the back entrance of the bus, sit in the coloured section, and give up their seats for white passengers. And yet, when confronted with driver James F. Blake’s racism on that day, the three people seated next to Rosa Parks stood up and moved. Several others got off the bus and disappeared into the crowd.  

Rosa Parks remained seated. She showed up.

Later, after her defiance had led to a 381-day bus boycott, which in turn led to the Alabama courts declaring bus segregation unconstitutional, media reports speculated that Parks remained seated on that day because she was tired.

Famously soft-spoken, Parks, on this occasion, made her voice heard in no uncertain terms.

“No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

In South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, our challenge is to start paying attention across all our social, political and corporate spaces, to our herd mentalities, and to the social proof we adopt to excuse the inexcusable. Start doing the critical thinking required for honest self-evaluation: Who are we? At our core, as a people and society, what do we stand for? More importantly, what will we no longer tolerate? When will we become tired of giving in?

This heavy lifting need not be a repudiation of our yearning for belonging. 

As Brené Brown points out, true belonging happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world:

Kitty Phetla as one of South Africa’s 21ICONS by Adrian Steirn

Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.

We are better than the headlines and 30-second soundbites suggest. We have to be. But we have to start showing up, authentically and courageous. It doesn’t have to be a roar. It can be the little voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’

November 25, 2020

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