If you listen closely to the stories of people born to a generation different than yours, you will quickly remember that cultural norms are always in flux. What we think of as normal is actually a set of loosely held beliefs, shared collectively by those similar in age, geographical location, religion or ethnicity. Normal for you might not be normal for me.
We know this, and yet those very norms are incredibly powerful. It is easy to shake our heads as kids lose their way in the face of peer pressure, but are we any different? Adults, claiming to live with free agency, often mimic their younger selves, following the herd in which they find themselves, doing what everyone else does. We easily replace our own sense of right and wrong with those who claim the right path is the one that doesn’t ask me to change.
For good or for bad, norms are comforting because they help us understand the context in which we live, revealing good ideas and bad ones as we decide which habits must change. When such change comes, it is easy to lose the sense of comfort that came with knowing what ‘normal’ felt like. When norms change, some people feel alienated, and left behind.
Consider smoking. My extended family was sitting on the beach recently, and one of the ten grandkids started waving her hand flamboyantly in front of her nose. “What’s that nasty smell?”, she nearly yelled. “Smoke!” another kid answered, “someone is smoking out here.” Kids groaned, parents rolled their eyes, and then looked around indignantly, as if to say, “Who dares to think its okay to smoke out here? Disgusting!”
Full disclosure, I was also appalled, bothered that we were being subjected to such a destructive habit. Later though, I heard my family tell stories about past vacations where aunts and uncles smoked incessantly, inside, outside, and most certainly on the beach. Our thoughts about smoking are a direct reflection of the cultural norms that surround us. Apparently everyone used to smoke: pregnant women, folks lounging in bed, and matriarchs rolling out biscuits for Sunday lunch…it was neither appalling nor disgusting 50 years ago.
Not a fan of cancer, I am thrilled that smoking is now considered taboo. I’m thankful my kids nearly think it is a sign of moral destitution to light up regularly. What about the smokers though? If you came of age in a time when smoking was ubiquitous, the changes that made smoking frowned upon labeled you an enemy of public decency.
That is the tricky thing about norms: They constantly change, and yet our attachment to them can make us feel dislocated when changes inevitably occur. There is a pervasive alienation that comes when the thing that is normal for me is suddenly outlawed out in the real world. If unexamined, it can begin to shape our understanding of our place in the world. Feeling as if my habits or instincts are not appropriate for public spaces can make me feel desperate for a place to fit. Moreover, it can make me feel as if I am a victim of public progress, a person now deemed unfit for proper society. It can make me long for things to go back to the way they were.
It is easy to imagine the resentment smokers feel when obnoxious children loudly condemn them on a random beach. As we think about expanding our embrace of the different folks around us, it is also helpful to imagine the resentment people might feel who are increasingly told their opinions are disrespectful toward women or bigoted toward certain others. To be clear, I find misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia even more toxic than smoking. Nevertheless, I have come to understand it takes hard (and perhaps unfamiliar?) work to recognize the evil and abusive nature of a set of opinions one has held for decades—that were once widely shared among his ancestors.
Rather than loudly condemning them as toxic, could we help them see the norms they have long accepted are destructive? When it is okay to insult and denigrate others based on gender or race, inequity, exclusion and power imbalances become the natural norm. If we want to live in a country with liberty for all, then this change is good and necessary. It is also worthwhile to recognize it takes humble reflection and courageous curiosity for those who found the old way of interacting acceptable. Rather than simply accusing them of disgusting behavior, it would be more productive to make space for their questions and frustrations, giving them a place to belong as they change their way of speaking.
I should say here that so many women and men from minority communities have been creating space for bigoted folks to learn to be less bigoted for centuries. And many of them are done with that work. It is incredibly costly for a person to sit with another person and explain to them why their perspective is hurtful, demeaning or oppressive. It is a cost borne by those who are not served by the status quo or norms of the past. Every time they step forward to sit across the table from someone angry or just confused by the need for norms to change, they are required to face dismissive prejudice or outright hate. Folks historically marginalized have been inhaling that cancerous smoke for longer than I’ve been alive, and the effects are often toxic.
It is incumbent on the rest of us to pull a chair up to the table and talk openly about why blaming other people for the alienation one feels is not the path forward. The task before us is to ask those who feel left behind to stop blaming women and men already victimized by prejudice. We must also make every effort not to condemn those who find themselves outside societal norms for being frustrated as they learn to respect and even honor the new norms for public interacting. Habits won’t change unless people are willing to calmly explain why it is necessary.
In an age where every other podcast discusses the power of tribal connectivity in this political moment, it might help us to acknowledge that some of our tribes become strong because the rest of us point our fingers at those who need a little time and help in discovering how our old norms dehumanized and hurt a lot of people. Let us not talk falsely now, but instead commit ourselves to support any effort made to reflect on how our commitment to some norms hurt the people around us. Offer people a seat at the table instead of kicking them out of the house.