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When Being Right is Not Enough

By Conner Gordon
30 Sep 2014
1963 March on Washington by Rowland Scherman – Public Domain

What does it mean to be on the right side of history? It’s easy to look into the past and see where the line has been drawn.  It has been found in leaders who have initiated social progress; those with strong convictions and stronger actions, who have stopped at nothing to improve the societies they live in.

I have little doubt that Dr. Dorothy Edwards will be remembered as one of these people. Edwards, best known for her Green Dot bystander intervention program that has dramatically reduced sexual assaults on several campuses, is a bit of a celebrity for those in the social justice crowd. So when given the opportunity to discuss the program with her, I jumped at the opportunity.

The conversation forced me to reevaluate what it means to be an ethical individual. And Edwards’s message is one that we all need to hear.

I count Edwards as one of our leaders because of her commitment to action. Though passionate about social justice, Edwards is unwilling to let ideology become an obstacle to reducing power-based violence. If this means compromising in a debate about the specifics of rape culture, so be it. As long as the individual is prompted to take positive action in the end, Edwards considers it a victory.

For some, her approach is radical. But it creates profound positive change, which forces us to reevaluate the role of ethics in our lives.

The righteous indignation that our personal ethics give us is a powerful force. It has motivated some of the greatest activists of generations past and present, and feeling it in our own lives is particularly exhilarating.

But with this exhilaration comes a caveat. Personal ethics are powerful, and they afford us a certain comfort: the comfort of feeling right. And without care, it is easy to let this comfort foster walls of apathy, preventing us from taking action by trapping us in a bubble of ethical righteousness.

In such cases, it is almost second nature to dismiss lack of change as the fault of others. After all, we understand how things should be. We know where we stand on the right side of history. But, unless we pursue action to make our ideals a reality, our righteous indignation is wasted.

As ethical individuals, we are responsible for bettering the world around us. Whether this means doing our part to end systematic oppression or simply looking out for our friends is up to each of us to decide.

But regardless of the circumstance, we cannot let our ethics become barriers. We cannot morally take the high ground and justify lack of change based on the fact that, if such change ever occurs, then surely we would support it. We cannot settle for the right side of history.

Being brave in this way is uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful. But it is ultimately necessary to make our ethical ambitions a reality.

When you visit Edwards’s organization’s website, one of the first phrases that confronts you reads, “Live the Green Dot.” I would wholly recommend doing so.

But the most important part of this phrase is the action it demands: to live. For it is only through hard-fought action that, when future generations look for the right side of history, they will know where we truly stood.

Conner was a Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute from 2016-2018. and a 2016 graduate of DePauw University. Conner's writing focuses on memory, politics and culture. He also has interests in literature and photography.
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