We Sell Out in Little Ways All the Time: Why Don’t We Talk About It More?
I have a secret — I lean solidly progressive and yet still bank with Wells Fargo. Yes, the Wells Fargo that funded the Dakota Access Pipeline, created millions of fraudulent accounts in customers’ names, and discriminated against low-income customers and communities of color in its lending practices. No, I don’t feel good about it either. But despite my understanding that all of these critiques are true and that as an entity Wells Fargo perpetuates harm, I still bank with them. That’s what I’ve always done, and on this particular issue for whatever reason, I don’t feel a strong urge — despite my clear discomfort — to do otherwise.
It wasn’t easy to write that paragraph. As I was researching the articles to hyperlink, I could feel my stomach twisting. I wondered if writing this piece was a mistake, and if admitting this fact would make my communities think less of me. But it helped to know that I’m far from the only one that’s felt this way.
Many of us imagine that when a moral dilemma or crisis finds us, at some point in our long lives, that our steadfast values will show us the right decision to make. It turns out that, not only do these dilemmas and crises happen all the time, but when they do, making the right call is almost always more complicated than we imagine it to be.
Sometimes two or more of our strongest beliefs, values or identities are pitted up against each other and we’re forced to take a side. Other times, core aspects of ourselves suddenly become obstacles to our long-term goals, ambitions, or dreams and we’re forced to reconcile who we are with what we want. Or perhaps we make a decision that feels utterly mundane in the moment, only days, months, or years later realize that we compromised ourselves.
In short, we sell out. We find ourselves in positions where we compromise our morals, our values, or our social causes, whether subconsciously or purposefully, in favor of a more easeful way of living, even when we feel really bad about it.
We like thinking of ourselves positively — and dwelling on our complicity is draining and uncomfortable.
These little moments of selling out happened not just once in a while but all the time, for almost everyone. As we examined this phenomenon, my colleague Inge Hansen and I heard selling out stories from students and office managers, conservatives and liberals, artists and businesspeople. We heard from communities spanning race, gender, income level, religion, ability status, and nationality. But as our collection of stories grew, we noticed something interesting: Few people, with some exceptions, found it easy to talk about their experiences. Most stayed silent about the decisions they made and struggled to justify these choices to themselves and their communities. And so we were confronted with an interesting dilemma: Why, if compromising our beliefs, values, and identities is so common, do people find it so hard to talk about selling out?
This disparity is in large part due to our knack as humans for the mental jiu-jitsu required to make conflicting thoughts and actions disappear. Take my Wells Fargo example. Even as I was writing it the rationalizations were flooding in. “I have some shared accounts with my family, so changing wouldn’t be convenient.” (It’d take a matter of minutes.) “There are no local credit unions to switch to.” (Wrong.) “I don’t like it, but I don’t have a choice.” (Definitely wrong.) Each of these statements, even if false, offers a seductively simple way out of my mental dilemma. They are examples of what social scientists call Cognitive Dissonance Reduction strategies, and the vast majority of the time they work to keep us psychologically comfortable by suppressing bad or conflicting thoughts.
It takes only the briefest of moments to come up with the justification, rationalization, or reframing that quells our doubts when we run up against selling-out situations, whether in the moment or upon reflection. And to some extent, this happens so subconsciously that we may not be able to stop it from happening. We like thinking of ourselves positively — and dwelling on our complicity is draining and uncomfortable. The cognitive/psychological explanation helps explain some of our silence around selling out. But what of those decisions that can’t be rationalized away, that weigh on peoples’ minds like they did for those we spoke to?
When we sell out and can’t rationalize it away, we tend to spend long periods of time stewing in self-criticism, sadness, and frustration. There’s a belief that, “most people don’t sell out or compromise in the way that I did, which makes me a bad person.” Because we believe that selling out was rare and only happened to the morally bankrupt, selling out leads us to feel intense guilt and shame. In the face of our (mistaken) belief that no one but bad people sell out, we take great pains to put forward an appearance of unshakable authenticity at any cost while quietly shaming ourselves when we inevitably compromise.
We need to build intentionality and mindfulness into our decision-making processes, and become more familiar with everyday ambiguity and discomfort.
Our collective fear of selling out didn’t come out of nowhere. While our ability to shame ourselves into silence comes from inside us, there are external forces too that compels us to stay silent. The same communities which give us love and support — our families, social groups, social media, and colleagues — can also be a source of guilt and shame when the issue at question is selling out. Those who compromise their values and identities (or are even perceived to have compromised these things) can be viewed as suspect or less trustworthy by their communities.
We all know that no one’s perfect. And yet, many of us belong to communities that indirectly or directly suggest that there’s only one “right” way to fight the power, and that anything else constitutes betrayal. These kinds of purity politics are common in communities around the world, from progressive and activist circles, where the focus is on what it looks like to be a good person of color, queer person, feminist, or activist, to conservative faith communities, where flexibility in life choices can be seen as an indicator of overly pliable morals. The people we spoke to feared perhaps above all else the condemnation of the communities to which they belonged and consequently processed their selling out decisions in isolation.
I helped write the book on selling out, and yet still found it excruciatingly hard to talk about the admittedly minor sin of continuing to be a Wells Fargo customer. Making these kinds of stories more common in our societal conversation will require addressing the three things — rationalization, internalized shame, and purity politics — that maintain the status quo. That’ll take some work.
As individuals, we’ll need to build intentionality and mindfulness into our decision-making processes, and become more familiar with everyday ambiguity and discomfort. We’ll need to cultivate self-compassion, learn ways to curb negative emotion spirals, and be kinder to ourselves for being imperfect. But the hardest work isn’t individual but collective. As a society, we need to work to unpack the history behind our communities’ distrust of sellouts, and work to heal the generational trauma that fuels it. This is ambitious stuff. To build better and kinder communities requires building a more just and equitable world that challenges violence, persecution, and discrimination to build better systems — and a better society — for all of us. But it starts, as it always does, with a story. What’s yours? How have you sold out?