We try to do the best we can with the knowledge and information we have at the time. Sometimes that knowledge is sufficient, sometimes extensive, and sometimes it is not. We are shaped by the norms we are surrounded by growing up. Sometimes they are healthy and supportive, sometimes admirably empathetic and inclusive, and sometimes they are not. As societies evolve the collective awareness and understandings change, typically expanding but not always. With those changes come new sets of norms which can at times directly contradict those which came before.
Just because something is a societal norm does not mean it is a good, healthy, fair thing. Nor does it mean it is not. All norms contain some form of inherent bias, the most obvious being the impulse to view that which applies to the majority as being the assumptive standard for everyone. More common does not mean more correct, it just means more common. If the most common height in a certain population is 5’7” that does not mean 5’7” is the ‘right’ height, it is simply the most commonly occurring.
Norms form and take hold for countless reasons but whether they are beneficial or harmful the main characteristic they share is the perception they represent the majority of society. Again, that a characteristic, attitude, or behavior is most common does not mean it is the most correct but once embraced as a norm it becomes the baseline for social interactions and assumptions. Norms enable us to make predictions, plans, and goals for our lives. If the majority of people have a certain characteristic or attitude we can tailor our approach to nurture the greatest chance for success.
Thusly societal norms are the most overt and obvious manifestations and battlegrounds of societal change. As attitudes and awareness change and evolve so too do our perceptions and acceptance of our general norms. Things which had previously been viewed negatively or forbidden can become accepted, just as things which were previously seen as positive or acceptable can come to be seen as negative and needing to be prohibited.
Adjusting to a new norm can be confusing and stressful, especially if we did not have an active hand in the change. Societal shifts are by no means a new thing but our current digitally connected world has certainly enhanced the engines of change with nitrous boosters. Our capacity to be aware of what is happening in virtually any part of the world at pretty much any moment is unprecedented creating not only a global society but also enabling shifts in that society to occur almost instantly.
As a result we can at times find ourselves seeming to wake up to a world very different than the one we saw the day before. A single image or message can catch global attention and the reactions can lead to large shifts in public attitude in a matter of hours. Not every shift takes permanent hold but large scale changes in norms of behavior and attitude can occur with rather staggering speed which means, among other things, we need to remain alert and aware of just who is driving the change to prevent ourselves from being manipulated or mislead.
Just in the last decade we have seen major shifts in attention and awareness surrounding many forms of discrimination, sexual mistreatment of women, political polarization, income inequality, and most recently systemic racism. These shifts have not necessarily resulted in all-encompassing and satisfying solutions but awareness and refusal to continue previous norms has been able to happen at an unprecedented scale and velocity.
When large sweeping phenomena move so quickly they can certainly wind up being clumsy, misguided, impulsive, and somewhat destructive. Change always involves breaking some of the proverbial eggs but our digitally connected mob-mentality can lead to significant real world impacts and consequences which cannot be undone as quickly as they were caused, and some cannot be undone at all.
One of the more common and toxic forms this takes is that of retroactive indictment. Once a serious norm has made a significant shift there is a reflexive tendency to look backwards and level condemnations over things which under the new paradigm are now considered inappropriate or undesirable.
Learning from our history, from where it has gone off the rails or gotten it wrong, is a vital part growing and evolving. And citing examples of precedent is a crucial and necessary part of altering perceptions by providing context and different perspectives. But if a societal shift is achieved all too often the use of, and searching for, precedent warps into a mob-like rush to judge previous actions by new paradigms.
To be clear, if a norm is recognized as harmful now this does not mean it has just suddenly become harmful. If it is harmful now it was also harmful before, the only thing which has changed is our awareness of it.
It is also important to note that something being a norm at the time does not erase, eliminate, or invalidate the harm it caused at the time. “That’s just how things were then” does not negate the harm caused but it is a mitigating factor in why people chose to behave the way they did at the time. The debating over whether or not people should have known better can go endlessly around in circles without ever truly reaching a conclusion because our current perspective is armed with the information we now have, something which our previous selves very specifically did not.
To pick a more light-hearted set of examples look at past fashion trends. How many people have looked back at photos in their high school yearbooks and bemoaned over what they could possibly have been thinking? Take the trends of the 80’s. The enormous hair and earrings, high contrast make-up, rolled up suit jacket sleeves, mullet haircuts, excessively high wasted jeans, poofy shirts, the list could go on and on.
At the time they were seen as the norm, the height of fashion even, and while aside from the styling damage caused to hair follicles most of the harm might arguably have been to historic reputation. We can’t really condemn our past selves for not exercising our current aesthetic sensibilities at a time before they existed. Though it is still important to learn from our past to prevent such horrors from occurring again.
Turning to more serious topics the paradigm still holds true. Sexualizing, harassment, and subjugating of women has always been harmful. Systemized racism has always been harmful. Derogatory humor based on race, gender, or sexuality has always been harmful. But, right or wrong, there were times when societal norms did not include acknowledgment of these facts. Women were called ‘dear’ and ‘sweetie’ and swatted on the behind in the workplace. A person being a member of a particular race made it legal to own them as items of property. And comics built successful careers with racial slurs, sexual denigration, and derogatory stereotypes for material.
Does the fact that societal norms at the time condoned, and more in point of fact openly and enthusiastically endorsed, these behaviors mean we should ignore them, dismiss them, or deny they occurred? Absolutely not. Even on the heels of a categorical change away from such attitudes and behaviors a clear comprehension of our history is critical to understanding how to move forward in a way which heals and prevents regression.
But we cannot promptly use the parameters of a new consciousness to amass indictments for previous behavior without allowing and acknowledging the possibility and potential for change. Someone recognizing their past conduct was harmful, even if unintentionally, does not undo the harm done or the recovery and healing which would otherwise not have been needed. But it does demonstrate the understanding and acknowledgement necessary for genuine change, provided it is accompanied by a discontinuation of that behavior.
And that is the key requirement. An apology is only genuine if it is accompanied by a change in attitudes and actions aimed at ensuring the wrongdoing does not happen again. Acknowledging the pain and suffering of others is important but taking legitimate action to prevent the harm from happening again must follow otherwise the attempted apology is merely an exercise in soothing words.
Take the stand-up comic being challenged for their past material. Should they be disgraced and destroyed for old material which by current norms and standards would be considered unacceptable? Not on the basis of that alone, no. They built their material, did their calculations, based on what was popular and acceptable at the time. If they are continuing to use the same sort of material, despite changes in the currents norms and standards? Absolutely yes, regardless of whether or not they offer an attempted apology.
An apology is only genuine if it is accompanied by a change in behavior aimed at preventing further harm. If they apologize but continue to behave the same they deserve to be indicted under the new norms and standards. But we cannot, and should not, drop the same hammer on someone who genuinely acknowledges the harm of their past behavior and takes action to prevents its reoccurrence. If we want true and sustainable change we have to allow people to learn and change. Being punitive either way does nothing to invite or encourage people to try.
Systemic racism is another arena where this kind of societal change and upheaval continues to unfold on a daily basis. That there have been massive harms committed in the past is undeniable. That harm continues to happen is also undeniable. But norms and attitudes are shifting in large and significant ways at an unprecedented level which inspires hope while also causing a great deal of bumps and clashes.
A surprising amount of the confusing backlash against the protest and growing awareness comes from those who seem likeliest to be allies in the fight not opponents of it. Those who truly do not feel they hold any deliberate or intentional racial bias and are open in their support of efforts toward equality. So why are they pushing back against, and even lashing out at, the progress of Black Lives Matter?
Finding out we have been part of a societal norm which has caused harm we were not cognisant of can be an extremely jarring experience. We judge others mostly by their actions but we judge ourselves mostly by our intentions. If we did not intend to cause harm finding out we inadvertently have makes us feel as if our intentions are being challenged rather than our actions which may have sadly been misguided. When we do something intended to help only to have the person snap at us for hurting them we react on behalf, and in defense, of our intentions not our unsuccessful actions.
Now to be fair, in this particular case, some of this defensiveness is not entirely unjustified. Some of the completely valid and justified frustration and rage over the impacts of systemic racism has led to exhausted exasperation resulting in blind lashing out. Everyone eventually reaches a breaking point and when we are hurting so overwhelmingly we reach a point where there is no longer any space left for composure and consideration, we simply want the pain to stop period.
The key is to understand that change may, and often will, show us our previous norm based assumptions and behaviors were misguided or just plain in error. This does not make us, or them, a horrible person who needs to grovel and capitulate while being ‘justifiably’ destroyed. It means we are discovering we were previously in error and are being given a chance to make a change to prevent any further harm. We are being given a new piece of information upon we can potentially make a better and less harmful decision.
In order for that to work, however, we need to accept the information and then take action to change. We need to provide that information and the chance to take action to others. If we, or they, refuse to take the information or refuse to take action then we make ourselves deserving of condemnation because we are choosing to be harmful. Under the previous norms we could be forgiven for our ignorance but choosing to remain ignorant does not extend that forgiveness.
It may feel like we are being told something which was previously an accepted norm is now ‘suddenly not okay’ but the truth is if it is ‘not okay’ now it has always been ‘not okay’. We are only ‘suddenly’ being made aware of it. Defensiveness might be part of a natural reaction but our choices about whether or not to learn and take action are what truly render us deserving of condemnation or not.