Here a system, There a system
Stand facing the back of an elevator rather than the front. Walk on the left side of the sidewalk versus the right. You will be going against social norms that prop up societal systems. Note that what is perceived as "correct" is simply the path of least resistance in this society. There are places where other conventions are the norm (i.e. driving on the other side of the road).
Before you pooh-pooh these examples suggesting that they are no big deal, try one. See how it feels to break a seemingly simple social norm. Then begin to open your eyes to the millions of norms and systems operating around us daily shaping our behavior. I preface these comments with this exercise,because I feel we need to do more of it. We need to flex our ability to acknowledge, possibly question and consciously decide to engage in norms and systems.
I am teaching a seminar on understanding race, and the students were struggling to understand what a system exactly is. I used the university as an example. It is a system, and while populated by people, it is bigger than those individuals. They challenged: "But if we all decided not to come anymore, it wouldn't exist." Yet in reality, plenty of people would be standing in line to take over as students, faculty, and staff; and the institution would continue. In fact, it is part of a larger system of higher education, of which opting out carries serious consequences.
They see the point and for a moment are able to grasp the reality of a system. Their process of being able to see what is around them is difficult, and the awareness ebbs and flows. Some students chuckle that they "get it" for a moment, and then the understanding escapes them. We are socialized to be unaware of the systems around us.
Some examples of a willingness to be more aware of systems and norms include the recent decision to redefine "rape" and the movement brewing in France to discontinue the use of the term mademoiselle. In these instances, someone and eventually a group had the guts to ask the question "Whom does it benefit for things to say the same? Who does it exclude?" The response led to shifts that will hopefully address the needs of more people. The FBI plans to expand its narrow definition of "rape," which only includes women and sexual intercourse. To be honest, I was not aware of the exclusion of males, those who identify as transgendered and other sexual acts. However, I am glad to see the legal system reconsidering this definition and hope the norms around our thinking about rape will follow.
Similarly, there is a movement in France to end the labeling of women based solely on their marital status. Interestingly, other European countries have dropped such distinctions. Whether it was through careful reflection or simply a subtle shift with the times, it seems reasonable to cease systematically categorizing woman based on relationship status - not only because it reifies marriage as an institution but because such distinction for men is either nonexistent or has become passÃ©.
We must be willing to see the systems around us, because otherwise we are bound to continue in collusion. After scrutiny, we might decide that such behavior suits us. Yet, that conclusion should be drawn rather than assumed. It takes conscious effort to deconstruct and analyze situations for perspective, systemic implications, etc. Some respond to this work by feeling they are powerless in a larger machine. However, an analogy suggests that individuals can bring about change individually and collectively. One leaf falling off a tree is inconvenient but not dire. However, if all the leaves were to fall off simultaneously, it would certainly impact the entire system.
As individuals and communities, we must be willing to ask ourselves the tough questions rather than oversimplify the complex or minimize the perspectives of others. While overwhelming, recognizing systems and norms can empower us to enact more effective change.
Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.