Societal Conditioning is Losing Its Grip, Let’s Help

Advocacy movements are changing harmful norms, but they can’t do it alone.

Still from ‘They Live,’ a 1988 cult-classic, very clever take on societal conditioning, and great follow-up to reading about this topic. (Image via letterboxd)

Social conditioning is a lot like air, we hardly notice it, and yet it affects every aspect of our lives.

It’s defined as ‘the sociological process of training individuals in a society to respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society,’ and it looks like going to school, interacting with peers (especially “fitting in”), engaging with pop culture, adapting to work environments, etc.

These things shape the way we view the world and interact with others.

And right now, Americans are learning that our “air” has some fiercely toxic issues.

Though there have always been Black advocates speaking up, nearly a decade ago The Black Lives Matter movement finally brought national attention to the fact that we most definitely do not live in a post-racial society (which has been clearly reflected in demographic statistics for decades) — and yet our public schools essentially teach that the ’60s brought equality to our country.

Generations were taught that we’re “a nation that doesn’t see race,” learning that ignoring our racial differences was helpful; and this conditioning has led to continued societal disbelief and inaction in regard to the very real racial disparities in the US. It’s horrifying.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up.

Then the #MeToo movement busted onto the scene in 2017, exposing the harmful misogynistic norms that women have been dealing with in America all along — and making a lot of us pretty furious about all the “sugar + spice” conditioning that basically trained us to put up with harassment and abuse, all in the subconscious pursuit of trying to be the “good girls” society told us to be.

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

And though disability advocacy movements haven’t yet caught the nation’s attention, we’ve been yelling for a very long time.

From extensive issues with accessibility (for wheelchair users and beyond), massively-funded nonprofits that actually work against us (*ahem, Autism Speaks*), to a society rampant with inspiration porn in place of actually informing people about how to work with our different needs; to excessive government focus on “preventable illness” and little-to-none on the myriad of conditions that can’t be, resulting in a blame-the-patient culture that’s really hard to survive —we’ve got a lot to be upset about.

All-in-all, America has a white-supremacist, sexist, ableist (+!) set of social norms; and they need to change, fast.

While developments like oodles of (brilliant) intersectional entertainment, advocacy movements regularly trending on Twitter, and increased diversity in politics are helpful and encouraging; we also need our societal conditioning to change in a structural way, in our government and healthcare systems, schools, workplaces, and how media is sourced and distributed.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.

For example, those same public schools teach young minds that Thanksgiving commemorates a peaceful celebration of unity between settlers and Native Americans when history shows that the opposite was true. And this propaganda is taught by teachers who are overwhelmingly white, with a lived racial experience that 4 in 10 Americans cannot relate to.

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

We need schools that teach actual, factual, history, and it needs to be taught by teachers who represent the demographics of the students in this country.

Now let’s pick on the media. Television and magazines propagate impossible ideals, corporate support/dependence, and harmful norms that serve to protect the status quo — which isn’t surprising since six white-male-led companies control the vast majority of the media, often resulting in news coverage and bias that benefits those already on top.

The “normal” office space is also rife with room for improvement.

The constraints of “acting professional” usually have more to do with not causing waves than treating colleagues with respect — and this conditioning serves us in the exact same way as the “sugar + spice” bullshite, helping to maintain the toxic status quo through unspoken demands like code-switching.

The effect of our present societal conditioning is that people are expected to “fit in” in order to move up in life, which is functionally racistsexist, and ableist in application — ensuring that the people on top, stay on top.

(And we’ve only talked about 3 offensive istsharming our society! There’s plenty more.)

It might “make waves“… 😮 (‘They Live’ film still provided by Universal Pictures, via Fonts in Use.)

How to Help

Norms are changing on our screens, now it’s time to securely bring inclusive changes into the schools, offices, and community spaces of the United States.

It’s time to check ourselves. And it’s time to speak up against harmful norms.

Everyday.

Everywhere.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.

But it needs all of us.

Here are 6 ways we can help detoxify the effects of societal conditioning:

  1. Learn, learn, learn. We need to educate ourselves in areas where we have societally-suggested knowledge gaps (or even misinformation), carefully ensuring that what we’re reading was written by a member of the affected group. This can take some effort, but it’s worth it to ensure that what we’re reading is truly the perspective of the community affected. (There are lots of advocacy personal essays on Medium, so you’re at a great place to start.)
  2. Inspect our language. Our culture is rife with popular terms that are actually offensive to our many vulnerable demographics, and even well-meaning can people offend. (We’re practically trained to, via societal osmosis.) And it’s important to pay attention to aspects that aren’t usually considered; such as more subtle aspects of discrimination (ex. for ableism, hurtful usage of words like ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’), phrases like “that’s just the system” that subtly stand up for the status quo. And it should go without saying, but this applies to every space — not just those where minority groups are present.
  3. Request change from the leaders of our society, especially politicians and corporations. Be it an email to your local political representatives about the harm of letting misinformation masquerade as news, no longer supporting an offending corporation due to sexist advertising, or calling out a celebrity for the societal ramifications of an ableist action; individual complaints add up and are often (eventually) appeased.
  4. Request change in your environments. Again, individual input matters! When enough of us ask for changes in respect to well, respect, leaders have to respond. And there are now training programs to help educate employees, students, and communities on how to better accommodate one another, so why not encourage one?
  5. Speak up when you’re affected. We need to speak up when we’re hit by the negative outcomes created by societal conditioning, or it will seem like “we’re fine with it.” If a teacher only calls on the white kids, if women in your office are paid less than men, if you’re being treated as if your disabled needs are irrelevant, or anything else of that nature — now’s the time to speak up.
  6. Learn to welcome the different. Even when we try not to let it, subtle-yet-constant conditioning affects how all of us see the world, often creating anxiety around allowing new experiences and people in. But in addition to being the inherently more kind thing to do, diversity has proven benefits; the more perspectives, the more coherent the collective understanding will be.

Inclusivity, attentiveness, and compassion in regards to our differences need to replace the societally-pervasive dinosaur mentality of “that’s just how things are done.”

And it starts with us.

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