Saturday, 13 August 2011

Social norms and your field of influence

I've just finished reading 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, it tells a story about race segregation in the context of white families who have 'colored help'. It's really a story about cross-racial sisterhood, but it’s one that makes you smile benignly about the behaviours of others in the past, where you judge their actions as uninformed and bigoted. Underpinned by the assumption that you would never be guilty of such actions today, you assume that you would not have been guilty of those actions then.

At one point, while I was reading it, the Tracy Chapman song, ' Across the lines' came on the radio. I've known that album since the late 80s, when I used to spend my summers in Chicago, and the image that it portrays of racial segregation in the USA is one of the constant truths of modern life. Recently, Louis Theroux made a documentary about black men in prison in Miami (I think it was Miami). During the programme he offered us the startling statistic that there are more black men currently in prison now that were ever slaves in the USA. I haven't validated that fact, but it makes a powerful point – there are a lot of black men in prison in the USA.

Putting these things together then, it seems to me that the language and the precise form of racial segregation has definitely changed, but can one really argue that the situation is qualitatively better, if whole generations of Americans still experience the paucity of opportunities of their predecessors, and the guarantee of social immobility?

But I do not want to lecture about American social history – what I would like to question is how able are we all as individuals to resist the social norms of the times we live in. In Mississippi in the 1960s, it was normal for 'coloreds' to have separate schools, stores, toilets, and it took some bravery not just to be different, but to challenge these norms. The language of segregation may have changed from colour to education and affluence, but it is still the same people who are affected, and this is what Tracy Chapman sings about so well. Louis Theroux captured the inevitability of crime for young black Americans poignantly – for these men, the revolving door of prison is their inherited legacy in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. And this is not just an American phenomenon.

Consider society today, and consider all the things that you could challenge, but don't. Consider all the wrongs that you see going on around you, and ask yourself why you don't. We can offer ourselves many satisfying explanations, about how we like to pick our fights, about how we don't have enough time, about how there are so many different issues that require our attention, and I bet for a lot of us, this results in us doing very little at all. For doctors there is the added risk of quoting some form of moral surplus in our defence: I spend all day helping the sick, surely nothing more is expected of me in our spare time?

While it undoubtedly takes a lot of courage and energy to lead a charge against something like racism or discrimination, we must also recognise that it takes an equal amount of courage to follow that charge. Venturing into the unknown may yield huge rewards, but it may also expose one to significant risk. It is perhaps, therefore, the norm for people to turn the other cheek, I think it was Malcolm X who preached to his followers that 'if a white man puts his hand on you, I expect you to ensure he does not put his hand on anyone else.' This combative cry was perhaps born out of the realisation that black Americans had been yoked for many years, but no one had really tested how strongly they were bound to that yoke.

In day to day life, we tend to be risk averse and self-protecting. Examples of people allowing discrimination abound, with tolerance of racism being a common theme. What we know, therefore, is that we are reluctant to stand up to the headline issues, and that we will suffer a great deal of wrong before we are urged to do right.

But perhaps there is another way – is it intellectually valid to assume that a society that tolerates discrimination is more tolerant of more minor intellectual misdemeanours? For example, does the fact that the UK has the highest per capita prison population of Western Europe seed any underling trends about the assumptions that individuals make about criminality, its origins and it solutions? Are our views and attitudes shaped and influenced by the operating framework of the society we live in? If society tells us that all criminals should be sent to prison, does that influence our views on who these criminals are, and what has led them to crime? I suspect the answer to most of these questions is yes, and if it is, is not a solution to the prejudices we make as a society about how to deal with crime to challenge, at an interpersonal level, the manifestations of those prejudices?

Do you see my point? What I am saying is that we are all responsible for the impact we create on other people, even though what we say and what they interpret may go through serial phases of miscomprehension and misrepresentation. Therefore, we can each take responsibility for trying to achieve some justice in our actions at work and in our home lives. This can take any form you choose, and the only requirement of you is that your actions and statements hold up to the kind of scrutiny that you would subject other s to.

I'm freewheeling a bit here, but it amounts to the realisation that very few of us are pioneers, and few of us are brave first followers. I'm very unlikely to be a Frodo Baggins, and probably won't even be a Samwise Gamgee. But we all have a sphere of influence, we all have the chance to create an impression on the people we deal with; perhaps,we can choose to be masters of that impression, and can create our own little zones of tolerance, so when people step into the our circles they are held to the standard we would like to see everywhere. This is not just about racial discrimination, this is about fairness and kindness at all levels, in all its manifestations, and about the actions we can take to make life just a little more fair. We can't change the whole world in one go, but we can exert a positive influence on the people around us. This isn't even about perfection, this is about being kinder, more tolerant and more forgiving, and realising that there is no finishing line, but rather there are things we can all do a bit better.

Post script

I asked my wife to read this. She warned me about trying to be messianic.  

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