We are living in times of great cultural, ideological, and social change. Longstanding societal practices, concepts, and attitudes are being examined, challenged, overhauled, rebooted, or upended entirely. Conflict and discomfort are always part of change, even change we are eagerly seeking. And confrontation is often the only way to break the inertia of deeply rooted concepts and habits but the engines of change seem to be getting stuck on that particular cog. We seem to be revelling in the confrontation.
The necessary calling out of abuses has shifted into some form of contest to show off our ability to find offense in even the most innocuous circumstances or language. What began as attempting to raise awareness driven by efforts towards justice and equality has become trolling, dog-piling, and gas-lighting as if it were some sort of badge of honor to find offense where no one else has found it before. So many people seem to have become addicted to being aggrieved.
If we spend our days searching for fights we will inevitably find them, even if we have to create them ourselves in order to do so.
We currently see this most around issues of race and gender. There are long standing, and deeply felt, systemic biases, bigotry, and oppression on both these fronts. Issues of gender have become increasingly charged as we seek not only to address the imbalanced treatment of women but are also exploring and expanding the fluidity of the basic concepts of gender. Racial tensions are repeatedly exacerbated by the presence of improvement in some areas of life and drastic worsening in others. There are true abuses here so how has the mission to put a stop to these legitimate injustices gotten reduced to online name-calling or lashing out at other victims?
When it comes to the oppression and abuse of minority groups calling out those abuses is not only important, it’s essential. It can literally be the difference between life and death.
There is legitimate and deeply rooted fear and wounded anger which needs to be voiced not silenced but there can also be something dangerously intoxicating about the role of the outraged victim. There is empowerment in the identity of it but if we’re not careful, rather than healing and growing towards actual change, we can end up wallowing in our anger continually stoking it to feel protected by its flame and fury.
We then start to use our victim status as not only a shield and hiding place but also as an excuse for our behavior, a justification for our own lashing out and an instant outcry defense against any repercussions or accountability. No matter how egregious our own behavior anyone attempting to reprimand us can then be decried as just another member of the group who previously victimized us, even if they might be in full agreement with our point and message and are only disagreeing with our method of expression.
People who are suffering should not be expected to speak quietly, play nice, and be calmly patient.
Their pain and anger are legitimate and valid and deserving of acknowledgement and healing. But it does not excuse further abusive behavior. What was done was cruel and unfair but further anger and abuse does nothing to change the past and virtually nothing to change the future in any genuinely helpful way.
The action movie has sold us the illusion that if you beat up the bad guy then not only do you ‘win’ but they cease to be a bad guy and will henceforth fall in line. This is not the case. Fighting only begets more fighting which only begets more fighting.
See, as example, the rise of white nationalist aggression claiming to be victims of racism themselves the most extreme of which are able to so fully convince themselves it becomes possible to see murder, even mass murder, as justifiable. ‘I’ve been wronged so I can do no wrong’, so sayeth the revenge film formula.
No. The desire to retaliate in response to harm is understandable and natural but no past wrong, however egregious, makes a current wrong any less so.
Thus we arrive at the ‘rock and the hard place’. There are no simple or perfect solutions. Complacently allowing abuses to continue is not an option. Confronting them head on can often be necessary to force a stay in the abusive behavior but force alone will not affect lasting change.
Change which is simply forced will only last as long as the force is able to hold it in place. The moment that force weakens, the impact of the force weakens, or a greater amount of force is used to enact a different change whatever is gained will be lost and the only way to get it back will be to attempt even greater force. There is only so far that cycle can continue before everything simply ends up irreparably broken.
Consider a parenting example. If rules about bedtime are simply ordered ‘because I say so’ once the child reaches about two and half and their language skills develop enough to argue with you that approach will no longer work, so things would have to escalate. Eventually yelling won’t work either so now we’re at physically putting them in bed, and then likely having to sit there to make sure they stay there. A few growth spurts and the addition of a hormonally rebellious peer group and that method of rule enforcement will fail as well.
Read a dozen different parenting books and you will likely get a dozen different suggestions on how to set up and enforce bedtime rules but the one thing they will have in common is an element of collaboration. If the rule, or change, is participatory rather than forced then the chance is far greater it will be lasting and will require far less escalation or enforcement.
Time and time again studies have shown that the key ingredient to engendering change in attitudes around issues of prejudice and bigotry is exposure and understanding.
The more genuinely familiar we are with something the less we are likely to form prejudices against it. Calling out abuses is necessary to create awareness but the next steps to create genuine change need to involve exposure and illustration.
For example a study published in The American Economic Review back in 2000, by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, showed that symphony orchestras which implemented blind audition formats where auditioning musicians were heard but not seen by the jury panel saw a massive increase in the hiring of female musicians as well as minorities. Some confrontation and calling out was required to raise the issue but rather than continue the confrontation and force, demanding the hiring of certain numbers or percentages of certain groups which would be resented and resisted, they laid the evidence of the bias right out in front those involved.
Obviously not every scenario is able to be quite so civilized, in some cases it can be a matter of literal survival rather than employment, but the paradigm remains the same. Complacency is not an option but fighting begets more fighting which begets more fighting. So what’s the answer?
While the practicalities will vary greatly the central approach is two-fold.
First we have to believe genuine change is possible. We have to believe that given access to accurate, unforced, and non-attacking information people can be persuaded to make different choices. In this current political atmosphere that belief can be incredibly difficult to cultivate but is the battle within ourselves we most desperately need to fight. If we don’t believe change is possible then it won’t be.
And second in our vigilance against oppression and censorship we have to keep ourselves focused on the desired change and not simply the ‘gotcha’ of anger based finger pointing dressed up as advocacy. If we expect to see enemies everywhere that is exactly what we will find, whether or not they are actually there. Vigilance is necessary but aggressive paranoia is an exhausting way to live that will distort the world around us until it proves itself right.