In her journal, Anne Frank wrote, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Working in anti-violence and anti-oppression movements, we think a lot about what it means to be a good person, and we try our best to put it into practice. What have we learned? Being a good person takes more than good intentions and being good at heart—it takes good hearts, critical minds, and thoughtful actions.
There are lots of big and small ways people unintentionally feed into violent, oppressive systems and help them thrive. (Trust us, we know from experience.) People do this by:
- Using stigmatizing labels
- Identifying with and promoting symbols associated with oppression
- Doing something to someone against their will or without their expressed consent
- Ignoring and silencing marginalized individuals and groups in conversation and dialogue
- Arguing that something is not a problem just because it’s not a problem to you personally
A simple rule to keep in mind? If it causes harm, avoid it.
Here are a few practical ways to be the best person you can be and contribute as much as possible to the movements to end violence and oppression.
- Value diversity.
Make a point of seeking out and learning from people who are different from you in background, experience, and perspective. This can be done in many ways, including via the internet, books, film, and conversation. Read, watch, and listen. Think about arguments and points of view that differ from the beliefs you currently hold. Actually make an effort to understand the how and why. Valuing diversity is a great way to grow, learn, and practice humility. And the more you know about people, the better able you are to actually treat them like people—with compassion and respect, rather than judgment and criticism.
- Use your power, privilege and authority for good.
After you’ve done some research and looked outside of yourself, you’ll probably start seeing how some people are disadvantaged in certain ways. You might start feeling guilty for the ways in which you’re privileged. Don’t be discouraged by this, and most importantly—don’t get defensive. Let go of your pride and embrace that discomfort. Let it fuel your efforts to treat people with the respect that they may not get elsewhere, and to call attention to issues and help make change.
Being a good person is partly about how we individually interact with others, but it doesn’t end there. And, if we do great things for our community but treat people like they don’t matter in 1-1 situations, we’re not being good people. We must be good in our interactions with others AND in the action we take to positively impact our community.
Let’s get one thing straight—holding accountable those who commit harm does not equate to labeling them as monsters. Often, we don’t want to admit when we make a mistake because we think it will hinder our ability to like ourselves—and we all want to like ourselves.
Still, everyone makes mistakes. To err is human! When you do something harmful and you realize it or it’s brought to your attention, the choice you make at that point will determine how likeable and good you really are. The best course of action? Admit the mistake, apologize for it, take any other corrective action necessary, and behave differently going forward. Similarly, when someone else causes harm (even if it’s someone you like), hold them accountable to do the same. If we ignore, justify, or support people’s actions after they’ve caused harm, we normalize and encourage them to do it again.
- Question the status quo and challenge yourself
Many ideals, beliefs, and behaviors are deeply ingrained in us as individuals and as a society. Some of these are extremely harmful. Just because certain things have existed for a really long time and are upheld by authority figures doesn’t mean they’re right. Critically analyze the world around you, question why things are the way they appear, and challenge yourself to do better than those before you.
- Become trauma-informed.
The impacts of trauma are all around us, and can explain many behaviors that we do not understand. Seek to learn about and understand the impacts of trauma. This will make you a more informed human being. It will equip you with the tools to assist in your own and others’ trauma recovery, and empower you to take action to establish communities and institutions that are trauma-informed, too.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it helps. What would you add to it? Comment to let us know!