Change Must Come From Within

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Racism, sexual assault, communism, atheism; each at some point has had a movement to abolish, limit, or eradicate. Each has had its prevalence, its supporters, its censors, and a movement to stop it. With varying effectiveness, these movements, both for and against, have ebbed and flowed throughout history. The movement de jour is Black Lives Matter with the MeToo movement close behind. Wherever a group is threatened, challenged, or endangered, there is movement to protect. Which side is correct is a matter of historical interpretation; however, in all instances, there is one group that seeks to stop the actions of another.

But what is the best way to stop the undesirable group? How do we stop these actions, prevent them, and stop them from happening ever again? History has shown us myriad case studies. Every culture has had at some point a genocide, culture war, censorship, and strife. No matter the background, location, or period, there is no civilization that has simply lived in harmony and sung Kumbaya. Wherever there are people, there are disagreements. At times, these disagreements, this social friction, can be healthy and productive: debate yields new understanding and common ground; a thesis is met with an antithesis, and together they yield the synthesis; liberal government works with conservative government to create progress. At other times, there is unhealthy friction that leads to wasted breath: religions clash on the inclusion of two words; media makes a story from nothing but rumor. Society loses its way when healthy debate or coexistence is circumvented, when one group takes force and seeks to remove certain actions through improper means.

Let us be clear: I do not condone rape, sexual assault, bigotry, and hate. Do not construe this to mean that trying to remove unhealthy action from society is the issue. Far from: making the society better and improving ourselves is paramount to sustained existence. But also, do not delude yourselves into thinking that removing racists and preventing predators is not curtailing action. It is one group, party, faction exercising control over another.

There are several methods by which a group attempts to act over another. The ruling class can outlaw the action. An activist group can raise awareness. Or in its opposite, groups can reach a false compromise of silence. Societal shame, a close relative of my preferred method, can drive another group out completely, or at least make them self-destruct. Each has its proponents, but I hope to show how each is flawed, and never fully completes its mission.

To ban, outlaw, or make illegal certain activity makes sense. In a law-abiding society, one would expect citizens to respect the rule of law. This, as all know, is flawed. Given free will (without getting into defining and debating it) humans tend to act however they damn-well choose. Banning something leads to increased desire for it. Cuban cigars are the same tobacco as Dominican cigars, but the air of mystery makes it better in our minds. Philosophically, even, people find justifications for not abiding laws that they find unjust. Enforcing the legislation also leads to problems. Autocrats across the world through violence and force enact their agendas. As is seen in all failed states, however, free people find a way to revolt and do what their freedom tells them to do.

Raising awareness is the default action for most groups. Education, they think, can force the issue into people’s minds, and the right education can ensure that they make the decision themselves. I believe that no one changes their mind without first wanting to change their mind. Even under duress, through torture, or when paid it still is not a true change of heart. Even faced with facts one will find ways to defend and justify their point of view. In fact, if presented with facts, one side can find “alternative facts” to create a new justification and maintain their worldview. We cannot be upset when a passive strategy such as “awareness” does not actively change someone’s mind according to our timeline. Similarly, the inaction of actively ignoring an issue, hoping that it goes away, based on the belief that continued discussion actually keeps the undesirable action alive in a self-fulfilling manner, is simply ineffective. Not talking about an issue may ease tensions and help to prevent each side from further entrenching, it still does not remove the root of the undesirable activity, nor does it ensure that that activity no longer exists. Relatedly, restricting information flow is just as ineffective. Behavioral biases abound that cause us to seek that which is denied. Censorship only makes the knowledge that much more enticing. Taboo concepts and vices become that much more enjoyable and sought after.

We have almost exhausted our options to change our society for what we perceive as the better. We cannot change the bare mechanics. We cannot increase or decrease information flow. What is left is to somehow change the society and community in which we live. Short of committing war crimes to effect the change a la genocide, we must make certain acts intolerable. The classic human way to do this is shame. I have stated above that this is close to but still short of my desired solution. Shame is powerful I will admit. Human society is hinged on cooperation, acceptance, and bonding. In primitive societies, if one were not part of the group, then there was a real risk of succumbing to the forces of unfeeling nature. Cultures formed on mutual acceptance of others and forming common bonds. If one broke the code, however, they were shamed into complying, or ousted. Still, there are flaws with using only shame. Shame is a negative emotion, and negative emotions lead to defense mechanisms as discussed above. It also prevents the shamed from exercising agency to change their behavior. Instead, they are manipulated into choosing the group’s desired action.

Each of the above is not best used in isolation, but there are times and places to use each to effect change. The real way to change a society is to create an environment that is supportive or unsupportive of a given action. The solution is to make actions compatible or incompatible with the society. If we wish to quell certain actions, make it so that people never choose the action in the first place. Leverage the natural human cognitive biases and gifts to create the environment that lends itself to our desired outcome. What better way that taking advantage of our personal desire for agency, for risk-reward measurement, and for logic? If the action we wish to constrain or eliminate is not logically deducible, then why would someone ever think of it? If an action is too costly, too risky, then why would one take the action? Create an environment that does not support that which you desire eradicated!

These so-called “cultural shifts” or “culture changes” are not a fast-moving process. The US Army has been working to eradicate sexual harassment and assault for decades now. It is working, but there is still progress to be made. Initially, the Army tried several methods I describe above. Obviously, it is illegal and punishable by death to rape someone in the military, but there was still a culture of not reporting. Clearly, leaders talked about sexual harassment, but not in a way that engaged with the culture of servicemembers. Not until there was an attempt to engage with and change the culture did sexual harassment decrease and become culturally incompatible. Instead of playing in the dichotomy given, leaders reframed the issue and changed the narrative.

On the other hand, however, some changes can take place much more quickly. Take, for example, corruption and conflicts of interest in financial services. How do we prevent a banker from suggesting products that are at odds with the customer’s needs? Simple: remove the financial incentive to offer one product over another. Similarly, how do we dampen the agency problem in corporate management? Simple: tie compensation to performance through stock options. These are all small changes, but they do show that with proper action that takes a gentle way, a sort of judo, we can create change that is sustainable and acceptable to even those whom we are trying to change.

McCarthyism was a successful limitation and near eradication of Communism in the United States. Even today, to be labeled a “communist” is dirty. Through fear, intimidation, legislation, propaganda, and outright attacks, the US government created a culture that made people think that Communism was evil and that communists needed to be arrested as enemies. Our culture has slowly drifted back to center, but to this day there are academics and politicians that fear sounding communist. The War on Drugs, started during the Nixon administration, continued in earnest during the Reagan era, and made mainstream during Bush I and Clinton, has caused some of the worst societal ills in the history of the US. Slavery and the oppression of women are by far worse, but this “war” is another example of societal change gone awry. There will need to be a counter-shift in culture to undo the maleffects, and it will take another generation.

One may ask: how do we apply this culture shift to our current ills? What must we change in our society to ensure that racism and sexual violence are intolerable and unfathomable? First, we must learn from our past. Without knowing how we have failed; without knowing how these ills were allowed to rise in the first place; and without learning from other case studies like those I have mentioned, we cannot hope to efficiently and effectively bring about the necessary changes. Second, it must be a unified, concerted effort to make the changes. How can a society be changed by independent groups? It cannot, for it is a society, like the individuals that make it up, that changes from within of its own agency. It is not one group gaining its momentum and being its own separate entity, but rather the cohesion and acceptance of the marginalized group by the broader whole. Moreover, we must all accept the rules. Social pressure can work wonders, but it takes active participants to start the fire in our society.

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Traveling through the Intersections

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