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Social Norms By Default

No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Several years ago I was given a work assignment that took me to a rural community in central California known for having more cows than people. It was a typical assignment, a two day temp job in a pharmacy. I liked registry work because it took me to new places to see new sites and meet new people. This one however had me working with a type of person I had never been knowingly exposed to.

He was a highly educated man, a pharmacist of some years, a pleasant and genial guy. Our conversation was friendly as we started the day before the patients arrived. I don’t recall how the topic came up but we somehow found ourselves discussing gay men. Actually, discussion is the wrong word because a statement he made stopped the discourse in its tracks; this intelligent, educated man stated with absolute certainty that all gay men were pedophiles. According to him it was a well known accepted fact. I was stunned, not only by his surety but the casual comfort with which he said it. He was incorrect, unknowingly offensive.

What of others hearing our conversation? Were they of similar mind? Were they as offended as I but accustomed to his beliefs, unwilling to counter him at possibly the cost of their jobs? Did they disagree but remain passive, letting his comments roll off as if harmless?

Being a hired temp help I didn’t want make a stink but just couldn’t let this opinion stand. So I challenged his statement, only to be countered with anecdotal “evidence” for his point. My job that day was to do a job and represent my company well so I didn’t debate further, but I made it clear to him and in a purposely loud enough voice for those within earshot to hear that we had a strong difference of opinion. The conversation ended and we proceeded with our work day.

The point to this story is not to advocate aggressive action to every injustice but to not let improper, untrue opinions stand unchallenged. If we don’t do so these norms will stand by default, lingering harmfully long past their day. Society evolves by what people know, what they accept and what they believe that other people find acceptable. Racist jokes, cruel statements, hyperbole spoken as factual, easy disrespect, dehumanization of opponents, labeling ignorance as stupidity, thrive in this environment. We can help norms evolve more quickly by publicly countering incorrect, outdated and undesirable behavior, reducing the harm that perpetuation otherwise causes.

At each moment in time (and with each society) there are opinions and behaviors that the majority of the population condones. Think of child spanking as an example, now considered unacceptable by most. The population holds three subsets—those who condone the practice, those who don’t and those who are undecided, by intent or disinterest. Within the disagreers and the undecided are individuals who remain silent of their opinion. This silence causes bad behavior to linger beyond its day—a social norm derived from tradition and now set at this default—a wrong tolerated by indecision and inaction.

What is in the minds of the silent dissenters? What motivation could they possibly have to tolerate offensiveness? Admittedly there are prices to be paid for speaking out—the loss of a job, shunning by family, mockery by coworkers and friends, the attention of being outside the local group’s opinion. We all know our personalities, our circumstantial strengths and limitations. The decision to counter bad ideas publically is by necessity a personal one, but it must be considered when opportunity arises. If we truly want to live in a world that is how we believe it should be, then we need to direct our lives toward a position of being able to speak up and promote what we believe. That is the least. At best we can do much more.

Wait, I can hear what you’re thinking now—promoting opinion or belief over truth? Granted this is a double-edged concept, a tool that can be put to good use or bad, imposition of majority opinion over the minority. Welcome to real life; nothing is simple. No method is always correct. Certainly there will be setbacks as many people believe incorrect things. Our country’s founders knew this when they built a system that balances majority and minority rights and opinion. In the long run, the best outcomes come from informed people having spirited public debate. This is what I am promoting. Let the opinions breathe. Help the outmoded ones fade into history. In the long run, correct information wins out over incorrect.

Despite the impression of the daily news, humanity has gotten much better over the millennia. Civilization continues to evolve. And in our daily lives we can have an impact one personal comment at a time, especially in the presence of others whose opinions we do not know. Standing up, speaking out, wearing an identifying t-shirt, displaying social media tags, will always encourage the silent agreers to join the action and make themselves known, widening the circle of acceptance.

Is it not in your nature to be outspoken, to be a leader? As this video demonstrates, that is not even necessary. Changes come not just from the ones who make the first moves but from those who follow, especially the first followers. According to your skills, be aware of opportunities for both.