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November 3, 2015

We need a new understanding of loyalty to advance society

Susana Rinderle

Last month, there was a flurry of media attention on Matt Damon’s disrespectful response to Effie Brown’s input during “Project Greenlight”.  One of my colleagues in diversity and inclusion, a biracial White and African American woman, weighed in on her personal facebook page, calling Damon to task as she usually does when a public figure crosses the line around race.  However, this time she experienced some blowback.  You see, she and some of her friends actually know Damon, and a couple questioned her loyalty for calling him out.

Fascinating. Friends who otherwise agreed with my colleague’s politics drew the line when she directed accountability at someone they all know.  I felt chills when she told me, and had flashbacks to my undergraduate years at UCLA in the late 80’s when some fraternities were accused of horrifically violent speech and behavior towards women.  I’d wondered then whether everyone present during the incidents had agreed and participated, and if not, why they hadn’t spoken up or done something to stop it.  I wondered how those men were capable of such awful unchecked, repeated behavior, and their lack of internal accountability scared me.

Now I understand why. Humans are one of the species most wired for connection; as newborns we can have all our physical needs met, but if we’re not held by other humans, we die.  Feeling excluded from a group has the same distressing impact on our brains as physical pain.  For most of our 150,000 year history, being connected to other humans has been essential to our very survival.  Yet as with many of our other wonderful traits, what served us well for millennia no longer always does.

What is loyalty, exactly?  What does it mean to “support” someone or “have someone’s back”?  Does it mean to not question their choices?  Does it mean to stay silent when they make poor ones? Does it mean to cover for them, bail them out of trouble and save them from the consequences of their actions?  Does it mean to go along with them or the group, even when this defies your own values?

I think it does, especially in male culture. I’ve seen this dynamic at work in fraternities; the military; police forces; and male-dominated clubs, workplaces and political groups.  I’ve noticed an element of power in this dynamic as well – loyalty isn’t always reciprocal, but expected by alpha members who receive it from less dominant members.  These inferiors face negative consequences for deviating, even from other “inferiors”, as my friend did.  In fact, the people who questioned my friend’s intent and defended Damon were all male.

This kind of loyalty is hurting us, and needs to stop.  “Society” isn’t some inanimate monolith humans passively respond to. We create, reinforce, or change society every day with our behavior.   It’s our responsibility to hold ourselves, and our own, accountable to higher ideals than group norms and peer pressure.  Doing so may ostracize us from our group, but there are always new groups to join and allies at the ready when we achieve clarity about what we’re about and the kind of world we want to live in, and act accordingly.

Perhaps a more “feminine” view of loyalty is necessary to bring about progressive change and a world that works better for more of us. True loyalty requires courage – courage to speak our truth, to gently push back on loved ones when they’re making choices that will harm themselves or others, and to hold ourselves and others to higher ideals like justice, integrity, kindness, community and personal sovereignty.  I think as women who tend to operate at various simultaneous levels of relationship and community and who have been the primary child-rearers for millennia, we have more practice at this kind of loyalty.

I applaud my colleague for modeling such loyalty in her responses to the facebook backlash. She didn’t throw Damon under the bus or personally denigrate him, but named his behavior, expressed its impact on her and her communities, and clearly yet gently called on him to recognize, own and adjust his behavior.  All this she did despite her personal relationship with him (an alpha male) and the personal consequences.  This is the kind of loyalty and leadership we need – from men and women – to disrupt dysfunctional tolerance and derail blind obedience to groups and powerful individuals and create a “society” we can all celebrate and be proud of.

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