Prominent social psychologist and architect of the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment Philip Zimbardo has stated in a number of interviews that sometimes in order to be a hero, one has to be a social deviant. This may seem counterintuitive, but if we were to define heroism as engaging in a courageous act, speaking out against injustice when the majority are being silent would fall under the definition of heroism. And though we live in a time where a lot of people are making noise on social media and in the larger culture, what public figures in prominent and powerful positions are actually using their status to speak out against injustice?
If we look at the Republican Party, there are the sounds of crickets chirping and hay blowing in the breeze. What prominent Republican figure has spoken out against the increasingly unstable behavior of Trump, or the unjust legislation that has been attempted under this administration, be it the Muslim ban or the wildly unpopular health care proposals, or the increasingly bellicose tone Trump has taken against North Korea? Is calling the president “a moron” a courageous act? Hardly. Few Republican leaders come to mind right now. John McCain, perhaps, for voting against repealing the present health care bill. More recently, Senator Bob Corker urged more of his fellow Republican colleagues to say in public what they have been saying privately for months about their concerns regarding Trump’s leadership. Similarly, Republican Charlie Dent came out in defense of Corker. However, neither of these Republican leaders are seeking re-election for their positions, and thus don’t stand to lose political support for their arguably unpopular position within their own party.
Who are the heroes in our culture today that are risking their own professions or livelihoods to speak out against perceived injustices in our culture? Sadly, our politicians are not promoting heroism with their leadership. When I think of public figures taking risks right now to serve a greater good, the people that come to mind are entertainers. Colin Kaepernick. ESPN commentator Jemele Hill. Eminem. The countless female actresses that have come out and corroborated allegations of sexual predation by Harvey Weinstein. These are public figures who put their own professions and brands on the line to speak out against perceived injustices.
We all know by now the story with Kaepernick. While his silent kneel last football season set off a firestorm of dialogue regarding race relations in our country, nearly six weeks into this NFL season he still remains unsigned. Another casualty of the NFL controversy, Jemele Hill, is a prominent anchor for ESPN who has been suspended for two weeks because of opinions she voiced on social media that were unpopular with the network. And most recently, as CNN describes, “in what is perhaps the fiercest and the most exhaustive attack against Donald Trump in hip-hop” Eminem came out with a 4.5 minute freestyle rap video at the BET hip-hop awards where he drew a line in the sand between his fans and Trump supporters, making it clear on this issue there was no room for ambiguity (Zaru, 2017, para 1). It remains to be seen how Eminem fans will react to this explicit venture into politics, but judging from the segment of the population who wants their entertainment to be devoid of any political impositions, he will likely receive backlash and maybe even boycotts of his music.
These are entertainers who are using their platforms to speak out against injustices that this administration and the dominant political party in office right now has either marginalized, ignored, distorted, or misrepresented. The notion that athletes or entertainers should stay out of politics just does not hold any water in this increasingly volatile political climate. Silence only serves to embolden authoritarian leaders and institutions. As Zimbardo cautions when he uses his research as a platform to discuss the psychology of evil, acts of heroism are not always celebrated as such in the moment.
To be a hero, one oftentimes has to stand out and defy the status quo. Indeed, to be a hero, one may even become the recipient of violent opposition and backlash on social media and beyond. Wear your social deviance as a badge, and use universal standards of justice as your guide rather than what may be a popular trend in the moment. Because while trends come and go, the truth is unchanging and should remain a constant. As should the standard for what we judge as acts of heroism.
Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2017
Zaru, D. (2017, October 11). Eminem unleashes on Trump: The 11 fiercest lines. CNN: Politics. Retrieved on October 11, 2017 from: http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/11/politics/eminem-donald-trump-bet-hip-hop-awards/index.html