The Well Lit Room

In 1997, Tarana Burke found herself speechless as she sat across from a 13-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. In that moment the seed was planted for the Me Too campaign. Ms. Burke says the experience "sat in my spirit for a long time." Finally, in 2006, Tarana Burke first used the phrase "me too" on her MySpace page as she was launching Just Be Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps victims of sexual harassment and assault.


Fast forward to October 15, 2017, when Alyssa Milano used the #metoo hashtag to denounce sexual assault and harassment, in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Milano encouraged twitter users to write "me too" as a reply to her tweet if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted. 

The innumerable changes that have since happened in a wide array of settings are a direct result of the movement started by Tarana Burke...  a movement she started using social media. 

On January 7, 2018 the Golden Globe Awards served as a megaphone for social justice issues and calls to action. The vast majority of stars wore black as a sign of solidarity for both gender equality and to stand with the accusers in Hollywood's multiplying sexual harassment scandals. Perhaps you were gripped by Oprah's acceptance speech in which she professed "what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories." Maybe you watched the video of her speech on Facebook?

You may have noticed that many at the Golden Globe Awards also wore pins with the phrase "Time’s Up" to lend support to a movement with multiple aims: to provide legal defense to help less privileged women pursue action against perpetrators, to develop ideas for legislation, and to push studios and talent agencies to address systemic gender-inequality. 

Do you see what these things have in common? They have entered our awareness via social media outlets.


Learning about the reality of various injustices via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube has become the norm. Countless movements and calls for change have been sparked by a post on Twitter or a live video on Facebook. We've been able to observe abuse and harassment taking place in real time because of the ability to share to the internet via live feed. This cuts through the "he said, she said" we get to see it unfolding in real time.  Abuse survivors have been able to come forward with their stories, anonymously or not, and share them with the world. Often this has resulted in others realizing they were not the only ones abused and some have chosen to lend their voices to the outcry. We've been able to read emails that were sent by folks who never dreamed  the emails would come to light. To light...

This is the thing I am starting to deeply appreciate about technology. We are living in the age of the well lit room. * 

I first heard the term "well lit room" in an ethics class during my first semester of graduate school. Psychologists place immense emphasis on engaging in ethical behavior. We have the following aspirational principles to guide us:

  • Beneficence and Nonmaleficence: Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. 
  • Fidelity and Responsibility: Psychologists establish relationships of trust with those with whom they work. 
  • Integrity: Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology.
  • Justice: Psychologists recognize that fairness and justice entitle all persons to access to and benefit from the contributions of psychology and to equal quality in the processes, procedures, and services being conducted by psychologists.
  • Respect for People's Rights and Dignity: Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination.

We also have A HOST of enforceable standards that we use to guide our behaviors to ensure that the ethical principles are upheld at all times. 

In that ethics course many years ago, when we were considering models of ethical decision making, we explored a type of consequential thinking known as the well-lit room approach. To engage in this test, one simply imagines being in a clean, brightly lit room where colleagues, respected friends, and others can observe the behavior in which you are considering engaging. As you can imagine, rather quickly you get a sense of whether or not the action you are considering is an ethical or appropriate one. You can probably think of a time you were engaging in something that didn't quite feel right and you looked over your shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Here's the thing, the likelihood that someone is watching or will be able to watch (or read) in the future is growing. The world is becoming more well-lit, in a sense, by way of the internet. 


I know that there is a heated debate about being able to maintain a sense of privacy in the digital age. I appreciate the nuance of the debate for and against more transparency. I find it sort of comforting in a way, however, that now when we make decisions, each of us will increasingly become more conscious that the action we take may not be private and therefore perhaps it should stand up to the well-lit room test. I wonder how this reality will start to shape the behavior of those holding power...knowing that everyone in the room has a mini-computer within reach with which they can record audio/video or share about their observation with 330 million people on Twitter in an instant. I guess we'll see.

One thing's for sure, we WILL see.

Dr. Spragg


* Haas, L.J. & Malouf, J.L. (1989). Keeping up the good work: A practitioner's guide to mental health ethics. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Exchange, Inc.