Misbehaving and Making History


Photo by Nathan Kiern

One of my favorite quotes is from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich:  “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”  Neither do well-behaved men, for that matter.  So what then are young men and women called to do exactly when we are urged to behave ourselves and, simultaneously, to make history?  Can we truly make the world a better, more innovative place while “behaving as we ought”?  What does “behaving” even mean?

Before I proceed, I want to make infinitely clear that I will not condone violence.  Especially for those with privilege, there are ample ways to “misbehave” without resorting to violence.  In many ways, violence is a tool to suppress and oppress rather than to change hearts and minds.

What, exactly, is meant when we are told to “behave”?  The definition of “behave” is to comport oneself properly, which in turn means “conforming to established standards of behavior or manners; correct or decorous.”  Certain behaviors become established standards when they uphold cultural values, which allow groups of people to predict consequences to different courses of action and to make an informed choice about how they want to behave.  Specific combinations of values and the resulting actions tie communities and even countries together.  At the most abstract level, these values give governments legitimacy since the majority of people want those values to be upheld.[i]  The problem is that these standards of behavior often include stereotypical or traditional gender roles, and the quote at the beginning of this post has become synonymous with women learning to rebel against expectations and these established standards to make different decisions for themselves.

Next, we need to understand how history is made and changed.  As a scientist, my first response is to say we are tasked with doing what has not yet been done, and what better time to do so then – as the movie Amazing Grace movie put it – when we are too young to know that it is impossible?  When I reflected further on that initial statement, I realized that making history thus requires reflection and an instinct for knowing when the current story told is not quite right.  Since hindsight is always the clearest, what better way to illustrate this point than to draw on a story of scientific innovation that changed the world?

In the 17th century, the accepted opinion was that the planets circulated the earth.  The Catholic Church, in power in Italy, promulgated a literal reading of the Bible, which declares that the heavenly bodies orbit the earth.  However, this theory had several holes; its predictions of astronomical phenomena and the resultant calendar were not accurate.  Such predictions and understanding of the heavens was paramount for sailors, who used the stars for navigation.  Galileo Galilei made astronomical observations that better explained the universe by relying on the sun-centered model of the heavens.  But then he went further.  He published these findings and argued (in the common tongue rather than Latin so that all could read it) that, in fact, the Bible could not have been written by a learned astronomer.  The Church, particularly the pope at the time, did not take kindly to this challenge of their authority; it did not help that Galileo wrote his arguments in the form of a dialogue in which the Church’s position was stated by a character called “Simpleton.”  Galileo was found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition and sentenced to house imprisonment for the rest of his life.  The church further refused to allow him to be buried in a religious cemetery and only recently pardoned him!  In promoting his discoveries and contradicting the story held by the majority (and the people in power), Galileo was acting in opposition to established standards of behavior and, by definition, “misbehaving.”  And he made history.

But not all misbehaving has to come in the form of scientific discoveries.  The field of Physics recently lost a champion in Joseph L. Birman, who died in October.  Besides his contributions to physics, he advocated for, pressured governments on behalf of, and helped resettle scientists oppressed by their governments – in the Soviet Union, Iran, and China – who were finally given permission to leave their home countries.  This work was more important to him than the science.

The success of the protests at Standing Rock and the successes in history of “misbehaving” scientists illustrate that, perhaps, to make history, each of us has to be willing to push against what we have been told to do in order to put further good into the world.  It requires heading into conflict knowingly, which is particularly difficult for those of us (like me) who do not enjoy conflict.  But the alternative is living with the knowledge that I did nothing and did not help make the world a better place when I had the power and skills to do so, and I cannot stomach that:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

– Martin Niemöller

The important thing to remember is that “misbehaving” will have its own forms for individuals.  For some, that will mean calling representatives, and it is important to actually call.  Others will attend protests.  Others will volunteer.  But as long as we each do something that matches our skills, I have hope that the world will become a better place.

For ways to get involved, visit http://www.mnactivist.com/

[i]  National Acaderny of Sciences (ed.) (2001). Global Networks and Local Values. A Comparative Look at Germany and the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.


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