Nietzsche wrote, “arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit, for merit itself is offensive” (1878, Aphorism 332)
While societies may differ on what it means to be moral, they agree that it is good to be so. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that overtly moral behaviour can elicit annoyance, ridicule and rejection rather than admiration and respect. Common terms such as ‘‘do-gooder,’’ ‘‘goody-goody,’’ or ‘‘goody-two-shoes’’ capture this negative attitude. Consider vegetarians. Examples of the resentment toward this relatively harmless group abound in Western culture.
This is a common defensive ‘‘dogooder derogation,’’ by individuals who represent the majority in a group and in anticipation of a moral reproach from the minority in the group on moral choices.
How then can whistleblowers, the moral rebels of society and a minority, hope to change majority views? Our society is rife with behaviours moralised by some individuals but not by others: drinking alcohol, driving an SUV, using disposable diapers, attending religious services, cohabitating before marriage. The sensitivity of our self-image suggests that our placid daily interactions conceal an undercurrent of exaggerated threat perceptions and retaliatory derogation. We hold multiple moral prototypes, so we can opportunistically emphasise the aspect of morality that best preserves our self-image in any given context. Our rejection of moral rebels has much to do with our own self-preservation.
By casting light on why whistleblowers are rejected I hope to open dialogue and mindfulness on how your own sense of self-worth can persuade or dissuade moral rebels to be agents of change without eliciting resentment and rejection.
Individuals who speak out may think they are only taking a stand against the status quo, but bystanders who do not take the same stand can take this rebellion as a personal threat. This suggests that the root of resentment may be that the rebel’s choice implicitly condemns the perceiver or bystanders’ own behaviour, and that this potential reproach shakes the their confidence in being a good, moral person (Steele, 1988, p.262; see also Sherman & Cohen, 2006).
The Perversity of Obedience
The simple fact of obeying in a problematic situation makes bystanders like a rebel less (relative to an obedient other). Therefore obedient individuals are not only going along with a problematic situation, but perversely becoming its guardian by putting down those who resist it.
Individuals who are involved and invested in the group and/or situation justify rejecting rebels by casting them as incompetent, mentally ill or generally not very nice people. This is because individuals respond to self-threat by putting down the source of the threat. Alicke (2000) identifies target derogation as a response to a perceived threatening upward comparison. This is more commonly known as ‘shooting the messenger’.
Pre emptive Rejection
When resentment is triggered so too is rejection. This is due to the perception and expectation that rebels look down on those who did not rebel and would reject them if they were able. Tesser (1991) proposed that individuals distance themselves from ‘threatening others’, and Smith et al. (1996) showed that individuals rejoice at the misfortune of perceived ‘superior others’.
The often imagined reproach by the rebel shakes a bystanders’ overall sense of self-worth which results in the rejection of the rebel.
The idea that individuals are more comfortable turning a blind eye to their own freedom and attributing their problematic choices to situational pressures has a venerable past in philosophy (Sartre, 1958), clinical psychology (Fromm, 1941) and social psychology (Festinger, 1957). Rebels are resented because they shatter the comfort of conformity, and remind others of their own freedoms.
Feeling less moral than the rebel
Most individuals care a lot about their moral identity (Aquino & Reed, 2002; Blasi, 2004; Dunning, 2005; Monin & Jordan, 2009), self-enhancing more on moral dimensions than on ones denoting competence (Allison, Messick & Goethals, 1989). Along with the imagined and expected moral reproach the realisation that the rebel might be on to something could lead individuals to question their own morality. Of course, individuals excel at trivialising other people’s positive behaviour by attributing it to social factors rather than internal dispositions (Ybarra, 2002), so rebels will likely not be granted moral superiority in many cases; but if the moral stance is unambiguous enough, one could assume that conformists start questioning their own morality
It all begins with YOU
Individuals who are secure in their moral and adaptive adequacy, i.e., self-affirmed (Steele, 1988),show less need to reject rebels or deny the implications of their stance.
Self-affirmation opens the heart. Self-affirmed individuals don’t feel the need to reject rebels as much as individuals less secure in their own sense of self-worth, even if they still believe that rebels might dislike them.
Self-affirmation opens the eyes. Not needing to deny a rebels’ gesture of speaking out to protect a fragile sense of worth, self-affirmed individuals are able to recognise its value and draw appropriate conclusions about their own behaviour.
Self-affirmation gives individuals some distance, both reducing a need to reject the rebel and allowing them to recognise the value of the rebel’s behaviour as a moral, agentic choice – possibly to the point of questioning their own choices.
My advice to those of you who encounter moral rebels is to step back and reflect on your own important values, qualities and principles. This will give you a chance to buttress your sense of adequacy by giving you a chance to shield yourself from the sting of imagined rejection. This in turn will reduce the need to put down those moral rebels who speak out.