Can we solve anything by legislating our desire to treat people equally into "human rights?" Can we create laws that will assure people a place in life, assure acceptance by others, assure freedom from bullies, assure a share of what others get, assure a chance at a living, assure opportunities? Can school systems simply declare that "These kids shall not be tormented?" Can we make ethnic groups accepted by others?
What can you legislate into being when it comes to human behavior? Can you really change human behavior? Can you make people like and respect each other? Can you make them treat each other as equals and give each other equal opportunities? Or is legislation doomed to failure - people will only resent, ignore, or subvert the law.
I have long held the opinion that you can't legislate respect and I suppose that, like a lot of people, I had not thought beyond that "simple truth." Now having thought just a miniscule amount deeper, I realize another "simple truth." People begin getting respect when they demand it. But does it take a law to demand it for them, and law breakers, and law enforcement to make that demand legitimate in the eyes of those blinded to the dignity of other human beings? Is this what it takes to get the ball rolling.
In another way, I am struck by another aspect of asserting rights . We can chant "We are deserving," and try to hold our heads up high, and this is an important component in attitude change - behavior changing and reinforcing our attitudes. But when all you have learned all of your life from others is that you are worthless, then you have internalized the prevalent opinion, and thinking of yourself with dignity and respect is very difficult. But when people with authority, stature, and even the weight of the law on their side stand up and say that you are worthy of other's respect, then it becomes a foundation for believing in ourselves.
In the Introduction to Alienation and Social Criticism, is the statement, "Restricting one's scope of actions makes one be who one is, or defines one." It's a very important statement in that when one lives in an oppressive society, one accepts the society's definition of that person. One does not have the expectation of doing what others do.
It seems reasonable that if you change the potential scope of people's actions and their definition, then you can change what they believe about themselves, and their expectations. But is this true, and is it practical? What if the people don't buy the new definition? What if the larger society doesn't buy it and permit it?
These questions ask if it is possible to change people's attitudes. When these questions are viewed from the perspective of attitude change, the potential is more clearly seen, whether dramatic change occurs immediately or over a long period of time. Three aspects of attitude change are very relevant here: 1. What do people believe? 2. What you do is more influential than what you believe, and 3. What are the obstacles to attitude change?
What do people believe?
Social traditions are typically well ingrained beliefs - believed without question. If one's relatives or community or peers act a certain way, then that is the way to act. People fit in their society and don't question every belief - no one has enough time to do that, and people usually aren't uncomfortable with what they know is customary. But social traditions often stand on flimsy reasoning that won't stand in the face of compelling reasons to change.
There are many myths believed by people who discriminate. Myths usually protect the believers from some perceived potential harm. Fill in the blanks: All Blacks are _________, All women are _______, All Whites are_______, All men are ________, All teens are ________, All poor are _________, All old people are _______. But we are all individuals and very little ever holds true for everyone in any category. These myths can crumble when confronted with the truth.
But invalidating myths doesn't change what people are doing, that is the influence of the power of habit and the way that people have been treating others.
On one hand, people believe flimsy myths that they will fight to continue believing in the face of sound reason, because what they do is more influential than what they believe. On the other hand, the law has the ability to reshape attitude. First, the law carries the weight of authority, in the form of deliberated opinion and power. In attitude change studies, authority is a significant component in believability and influence. The person with more respect and a bigger stick wins the debate. So when the law says that people are equal, both the oppressor and the oppressed tend to believe it.
What you do is more influential than what you believe
But changing people's minds for the moment still doesn't change what they do. What they have been doing, and what is supported in their community of friends, will not only hold sway, it will also make them rationalize their behavior by reshaping their beliefs to support what they are doing. For example, the person who thinks that he is less worthy than others, so has been sitting in the back at school ball-games and business parties, and not mingling, will continue to do so out of habit and social discomfort. Whether he is worthy or not, he just doesn't fit, so he is still somehow unworthy. The people who believe that the other person is less worthy will continue to ignore the back of the auditorium at school ball games and business parties, and continue to act as if the person just doesn't belong. Discrimination continues, but justified by new rationalizations.
The law goes even further. The law, when enforced, changes people's actual behavior. Just as in the preceding paragraph the people's old behavior and pressure made them rationalize continuing to discriminate, the law can force behavioral change and the new behavior can cause them to rationalize a new set of beliefs. Forced to treat the other person as an equal, suddenly the other person is "All right," although not a friend. And then, once people begin to mix as equals, the walls of misundertanding can begin to fade. "All right," is a measure of acceptance that can potentially grow into friendship.
So the law has some capacity for making both changes in people's beliefs and changes in their behavior, so that there is a complete change of attitude. I wish it was this simple.
Change in attitude comes very slowly and painfully. For example, equality between Whites and Blacks has been an issue since before the Civil War, even from the days of our first President, George Washington. Civil rights legislation and mandates put an end to much of the overt limitations placed on Blacks, but separation and lack of respect are still major problems among many people over the entire US. Yet the pervasive attitude among both Whites and Blacks is nothing like it was before legislation or at the time this country began, either in feelings of equality or of expectations.
What are the obstacles to attitude change?
Many people are "authoritative" simply because of their proximity. Friends, neighbors, and family all carry the big stick of "acceptance," and so wield tremendous influence over a person who might otherwise change his attitude about discriminating against others. People within business carry the financial power to influence others. Civic, group, and "click" leaders have similar influence.
How well do people change their attitudes in the face of such opposition? While most of us hold the freedom to make our own decisions as very important - important enough to even act contrary and rebel against that power - that freedom is severely restricted when confronted with pressure from influential people. For example, in the Watergate coverup, various public officials had to decide whether to act illegally, or suffer some consequence. Each one perceived pressure from the President and the other officials. Most seemed to immediately rationalize a reason for going the illegal route, while some acted courageously and remained honest. Janis*1 summarized that how they responded depended on their dominant coping pattern. In my view, their dominant coping pattern is possibly related to the values that each of them held the highest, which is related both to what they were taught, and probably to ethical and moral maturity. If grown men in positions of high leadership with much to lose have this much trouble coping with pressure, how much more so do the rest of us?
The inverse of freedom versus public pressure on decisions, is the power of public committment to influence decisions. Public committment is a very powerful thing. Once we make a committment in public to do certain things, we find it very difficult to reverse our decision, even in the face of stiff rebuttal. Strong evidence creates no contest. Much more than just having a different opinion than others, the person who is vocal about his beliefs loses face when he is seen to change them. So the person who has been very vocal about acting in a certain way toward others, will have much more trouble than others in changing his attitude.
Legislating rights not only faces practical implementation issues, we also have to ask if it is counterproductive. Alienation and Social Criticism makes the point that "The language of rights... does not allow one to protest alienation." What we create with laws is situations in which you can't discriminate. At all other times, and in all other ways, you are free to alienate others. You may have to work beside someone, but you don't have to eat lunch, have a beer, exchange presents with them, or include them in conversatations or a joke, invite their children to a dance class or camp.
But we don't have to do these things for anyone - in fact we each choose our own friends. However, when you respect another person, friendship is free to grow.
We must keep in mind that legislation and law can be two different things. You can legislate many things which aren't laws. They can be simple proclamations that carry the authority of the government and the people. Laws carry out the intent of legislation by shaping behavior when it is necessary.
One of the things that struck me hard as I read my reference book, Alienation and Social Criticism, is the complicated feelings of those who feel isolated from the rest of us. For example, if someone is in a wheel chair, I try to treat them just like everyone else. I neither try to ignore their disability, nor overcompensate for it, and I certainly don't degrade them or make fun of them. But as I read the first person narrative of people in this book, the complications of how people feel and their reactions to other's, and how they want to be treated is a serpentine plot that becomes as tangled as a neurosis. Their complicated point of view reflects how the rest of us view those who are being or feeling ostracized.
We are taught that it isn't polite to stare at others, and certainly not to tease others, and to assist those who are less fortunate. These are well-meaning things. We basically learn to ignore the source of other's misfortune. But from the less fortunate person's point of view, besides dealing with their immense pain at their situation, they see in society a tendency to ignore not the disability, but ignore them, or on the other hand to patronize them as if they were less a person than the rest of us. After all, they remind us that life is fragile and that we could soon be in their plight, especially if we fail to conquer everything from physical beauty to medical prowess. Ultimately failure is assured for us all in the form of aging - losing physical prowess and death - the supreme mark of failure in this age. Aargh! I wrote a sidenote in my book, "Damned if we do notice, and damned if we don't!"
The less fortunate person is trapped. He can't get angry with us because he needs us. He can't pity himself without being accused of wallowing in it - he should just take charge and change his situation or cope. Instead of being troubled by what he doesn't have, he should be grateful for what he does have. He can't recognize his own limitations because "the world" expects that he will find ways to overcome them. So what he can do is warehouse himself and ignore his situation and his feelings, cut off even from himself.
Without open communication among people, those who are different tend to become cut off from the rest of us, and isolated even from themselves. We need to ask probing questions and communicate with those who are different. What is the "black experience?" What is it like to grow old? Do you still have sexy feelings when you are old, and is life still as worthwhile as when you were young? What is daily life like when you live in a wheelchair? Are you still beautiful?
The point taken from this is that by being invisible, both the less fortunate and the rest of us are deprived of the knowledge, skill, resources, and motivation necessary to promote change. What is fundamental to change is to incorporate others into our world as much as possible and get tuned into their needs. Not to treat them is "normal," not to treat them as "impaired," and certainly not to ignore them, but to understand what is necessary for them to continue to be an active part of the rest of us. It is an opportunity for us to learn to think outside the lines.
We have some very narrow definitions that we cling to about what our lives are about. For example, when it comes to sexuality, we tend to focus on intimacy and the sex act itself. Even the dictionary remains pretty close to this view. Does a paralyzed person feel sexy, or is that denied to them? There is a myth that sexuality declines with age - the young can't envision old people "doing it," yet we can't envision life without it. Is sexuality - is life - just raging hormones? On this Web site, I refer to sexuality as the way of thinking, feelings, and behavior that are a result of our being masculine or feminine. That encompasses a very wide range of thoughts, feelings, and actions. How then does a paralyzed person think, feel, and act sexy? Sexuality is one example, but we particularly have narrow thinking about being a woman, being old, being a teen, etc.
Tearing down stereotype definitions of people, and beginning to understand each other as human beings, is one essential step in gaining respect for others.
What to do, what to do?
I don't think that laws are any substitute for teaching respect, and I am generally opposed to social engineering (forced social change). But there is a lot to think about, and one-sided approaches seldom are practical or effective. I think that teaching respect by itself is quickly nullified by the more pervasive attitudes in our society, so legislation and the law are sometimes essential to counterbalancing hopelessly unequal situations to promote the attitude change required for respect to begin.
But where do you begin teaching respect? There are probably two large obstacles to respecting others. One is the basic fact that the other person is different, which can be overcome by familiarity and emphasizing what is common between us through communication. The other more difficult obstacle is the pervasive discriminatory attitudes which are fear based and supported by powerful social advocates.
What is most effective? Although social engineering through legislation, and persuasive communications coupled with social pressure, may be needed, the empowerment method of assisting attitude change can be the most effective component in eliciting real attitude change because it circumvents the problem with the person not freely making his own decision.
The problem, stated for the sake of empowerment, is this: The person(s) has a well entrenched attitude and doesn't want to change, and change will probably involve some pain because of the social pressure to maintain his existing attitude. Would the person be interested in changing if he realized that his attitude was destructive and prevented him from having relationships with other people, and that change is inevitable? Maybe. The decision to change is often determined simply by one factor outweighing another.
You can empower change if the person is willing. You empower change by helping to remove obstacles and being encouraging and supportive. But if the person is not willing to change, there is also a way to subvert the problems of entrenched attitude and unwillingness to change.
The wearing of seat belts is one example of something that people often resist doing. Seat belts do restrict your movement within a vehicle, and can be uncomfortable for some people. When there is a long-time habit of not wearing them, and some justification for not wearing them, then getting people to change their habit is very difficult. There is legislation and law enforcement, but it is difficult to administer and not totally effective.
When a person is confronted with the decision to wear the belts, they may go through some pros and cons, but sooner or later what they do is rationalize not wearing them. The rationalized excuse goes, "If you have a wreck, you might not be able to escape a burning vehicle." How many vehicles burn during a wreck? Very few. How many injuries are prevented and lifes saved by seat belts? Many, many, many. If the person was in Las Vegas, he would lose, lose, lose. You can use the Socratic Method and ask the person to fully explain his beliefs in accident fires by percentage, until he finally spells out the flaws in his own reasoning and convinces himself.
He will probably next rationalize the argument that, "I would prefer to be thrown free of the vehicle." How many people are severely injured by exiting across the steering wheel and through the windshield? It isn't a pretty picture. How many people injure other passengers by flying into them, or how many turn their legs into silly putty as they become a pile of compressed flesh and bone under the dash? Seat belts prevent all of these things. A perusal of the alternatives, coupled with statistics, could help the person decide.
The person is then likely to say, "Well, when it is your time to go, there isn't much you can do." This isn't a religious argument, it's just an excuse for denying responsibility for yourself. You can always counter with, "Would you jump off a cliff and ask God to save you? No, you know the outcome - there are physical consequences for physical things. Expecting God to save you from stupid things is called tempting God. You know what not wearing seat belt can do. Would you tempt God by not wearing your seat belt?"
Rationalizations, which are often just silly excuses, are the person's way of saying, "This change scares me," or "I just don't want to," or "I don't think I can." Rationalizations are an obstacle that can be removed by destroying the reasoning and then finding out what the person is really afraid of, and countering that with encouraging remarks. Sometimes it is just easier to try to find out what the person is really afraid of and dealing with that, and the silly rationalizations just go away.
Often the person will argue trivial points forever. This can be very frustrating for those who feel that someone should succumb to rational arguments. But what arguing trivial points means is that there is some deeper reason for avoiding change, such as crossing similar attitudes of peers, parents, and friends. For example he could never be friends with that person and take that person home for dinner. Dramatic encounters are one potential way of causing an instant willingness in the person to change. For example, seeing the results of car wrecks, and hearing first hand the painful feelings and consequences in their lives of someone who has been discriminated against, can make the person willing to change his attitude about automobile safety and discrimination.
While at one time there was a feeling that inducing fear or use of other dramatics would backfire and prevent attitude change, it is now realized that inducing too much fear will prevent the person from rationally considering something. But fear and other emotion are tools which lend themselvses too easily to misuse and abuse.
What can be done? For those willing to be persistent and work for long-term results (over a period of a year or more), attitude change can happen, and alienation can be controlled.
*1 Janis, Irving L., and Mann, Leon. Decision Making. A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment.1977, 10, Coercive Demands during the Watergate Coverup.
Petty, Richard E., and Cacioppo, John T. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. 1981.
Schmitt, Richard, and Moody, Thomas (Editors). Alienation and Social Criticism. Key Concepts in Critical Theory. 1994.
A related creative writing story synopsis, Enemies, can be used for writing a story on alienation. The story is designed to be written by opposing individuals or groups.
Disagree? I hope so. Write a better one. Comments are welcome and won't be published. Contact Primary Contact.
A note about this series
For a reference text, I tried to choose a book as likeminded in approach as myself. That is, a book that takes a very wide view of the subject, that is not reactive or driven by a separate agenda, and not mired in past research yet cognizant of the value of past research. I chose Alienation and Social Criticsim: Key Concepts in Critical Theory, 1994, Edited by Richard Schmitt and Thomas Moody. But this series isn't a book report. I chose the book as an authorative reference that would not only guide me with a reasonably extensive framework, but would mostly stimulate my thinking by my reacting to it.* The subjects that I am writing about are intentionally beyond the scope of the reference book.
As usual, the intent of this series is not to teach anyone anything or to assert my opinion, but to stimulate creative thought and interest through a thorough exploration of a timely subject about the human condition. The hope is to encourage stories (creative, nonfiction, journalism) that are better informed. My own bias is simply to ask, "What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?"
* In the previous series, Finding Meaning in Life and Characterization, I found myself studying three to five reference books for each article even though I had outlined the entire series in advance. While worthwhile, and maybe necessary for that series, that was a tremendous drain on my time. I hope to keep this series to only a few references.
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