To see what others don’t see! Civil Courage during the coronavirus crisis

Updated: Jan 22


You type the name of a place you want to go to, press search on Google Maps and then, despite of the darkness, you are smoothly guided to your destination. Until your phone suddenly ‘drops’ dead, about ten minutes before arrival. It’s late, there is no one on the streets who could give directions. Furthermore, there are no signposts. What can you do, besides feeling lost?

This is the kind of situation we could find ourselves in when we have no or insufficient knowledge. In case there is no (sufficient) knowledge, there is no stepping stone to support our personal ability to connect new information to existing knowledge either.

Another steppingstone

Have you ever shown a photo of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to anyone without giving an explanation? Some people just see an old house, even though the caption says ‘in the Netherlands’ or even ‘in Amsterdam’. Only a few would recognise the Anne Frank House.

What do you think? Do you think that the individual who sees 'an old house' receives the same information and has the same associations as someone who recognises the Anne Frank House? We do not think so. Recognising the Anne Frank House radically changes the context and immediately the meaning of what can 'really' be seen in the photograph.

In other words, knowledge of the context is necessary and could be used as a steppingstone toward understanding the meaning of what you see. Without that knowledge, it will be impossible to store new information. The Anne Frank House really does not derive its fame and the many visitors from its beautiful architecture. The context of the Holocaust is what attracts visitors.

“The function of context is clear, it helps us to give meaning and to understand things and events, you could say that context is our guide in the search for meaning. Those who do not know the context or do not explore it run a great risk of misunderstanding things.” Peter Vermeulen, Flemish pedagogue and autism expert

Ju Duoqi - cabbage pin up

What is true?

That brings us to the core issue of this article: what do people do if they don’t understand the essence of what they perceive? How do we deal with all the changing meanings of (social) behaviour in today’s new reality or new normal? To what extent do we still accept these changes, and the legal adaptations that facilitate them? Do we find it all appropriate to our shared views and values? How do we react if we ourselves cannot formulate satisfactory answers to oppressive questions or intrusive situations? It takes a bit of courage to think about this and to realise that even the best intentions could turn out disastrous?

When people really don't have an idea, they are usually aware that they don't (fully) understand the situation.

Exploring is then the logical consequence, talking about it with others, reading about it, asking questions. At the same time you might be trying to have a good handle on the situation, which is a natural reaction. You are going to create images in your mind, and – with the steppingstone as your starting point – start to fill in the situation. It could be very tempting to fall back on the socially dominant narrative. That does not cause much hassle, because social norms can be quite dominant. Then it is easier to have a glass of wine, despite the fact that you had decided to take part in the annual no alcohol challenge.

If people really think they know what a situation is really like, they are usually unaware that they do not (fully) understand the situation.

They are convinced that they fully understand the situation and so they act directly based on their own ideology. Do you ever wonder whether you form an opinion on the basis of understanding, knowledge or ideology? I am sure you will have an opinion about being forced to wear face coverings, and convince others to obey the same social rule. Of course, you have heard or seen that the manufacturers expressly state on the packaging that these face masks do not protect people from getting COVID-19. Or did you find a creative and sustainable way of making coverings using rages and a sewing machine yourself? Did you know that the NEN (Royal Netherlands Standardisation Institute,) states that “The qualitative properties of a self-made face mask are usually not known, so its function cannot be guaranteed”. How should we deal with this kind of information? Even more importantly, do you have the impression that this kind of opinion-forming has been tested by policy makers, behavioural scientists and parliamentary leaders during the last ten months of the current crisis? An example we really have to ask you about.

Regardless when you can picture or not, generally speaking, apathy seems to be one of the most common reactions. After all, if you do not know where you are or what you see, then you do not know what should be the first step to take if you want to achieve something. The result might be that you do nothing and wait. By the way, waiting is not necessarily wrong, but remember it is a verb for a reason. In the meantime you can go over all the options and information in your head. You are then actively 'exploring' and hopefully showing willingness to adapt the 'internal steppingstone’ to be able to get to (all) of these new observations. This requires a bit of courage of a special kind; also known as 'Zivilcourage' or 'Civil Courage'.


What makes citizens courageous?

The more citizens with civil courage a country has, the fewer heroes it will once need’ Franca Magnani

We all contribute to the interpretation and acceptance of the new normal, which could be actively or passively. We play a significant role on an individual basis. Active in this sense does not necessarily mean being visibly active. After all, one can contemplate and explore in silence. However, from a standpoint of collectiveness, it could be worthwhile to stimulate others to understand this new world. Perhaps this will give citizens the courage to act accordingly. Psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer (University of Innsbruck) describes this kind of Civil Courage as acting in accordance with your own beliefs even if that goes against established opinions, without worrying about or taking into account the effect that these acts can have on your own position. This is because this bourgeois courage has often been punished, because it entails risks and practically guarantees exclusion.

Some Dutch Courage

The (expected) effects of the mandatory coronavirus lockdowns and rules force some people to reflect on what they have been and still are observing. Are you open-minded enough to adapt internally to updated information and completely new social conditions? What will happen if we do nothing? What ideological basis do you dare to support in order to be able to explain how it is possible for people to spend their last days practically in isolation in a hospice?

The less knowledge we have, the more ideologically driven opinions will dominate the discussion. Lack of knowledge also makes us more susceptible to conforming to the dominant ideological narrative. A natural reaction, and in any case a primary survival strategy. The less we know about a situation, the more we behave according to what we think we see. Under normal circumstances we could get away with it, but in times of great, abrupt change that is simply not enough.

Preferably from within, we need to have the courage to face the new reality, the new normal. Only through this process and the courageous actions that go with it, we will collectively be able to give a new coherent meaning to the Anne Frank Houses we encounter in our lives.

9 December 2020


Maria van Boekelen is an independent journalist and psychologist.

Frans van der Reep (1954) recently completed international careers in science and business. He has had his academic education in the 1970s,

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