This reflection is taken from the content I am currently developing for the Welcoming Path formation program. It serves as an introduction to readings and discussions on Martha Nussbaum's Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. I have edited it to be a stand alone piece here.
The Welcoming Path Formation Program is oriented around giving us concepts, skills, and tools that help us relate to our experience, and especially our efforts to bring about social change, in ways that are more sustainable, resilient, life-giving, wise, and kind. We began with reflexive practice - identifying our theories of change, looking and listening deeply to our experiences with the expectation to adapt our strategies to better meet our needs, creating communities where we expect to learn and grow together, and working together across personal, relational, structural, and cultural dimensions to make robust movements.
We then introduce another core concept, the Capabilities Approach. When it comes to injustice, we are encountering what is wrong in the world, and it can be - and usually is - an overwhelming experience. The resulting rage, grief, and despair can become the focus of our lives. That is why folks like Paulo Freire (whose approach to community development we'll be studying near the end of our program) emphasized that we must both Denounce and Announce:
- denounce domination systems that push people to the margins and deny them life
- announce the partnership systems that bring us together in communities where everyone's voice is heard and needs are met.
Many of us are quite familiar with the denunciation aspect. We know that the-way-things-are is not okay, but it's often the only way we've experienced. We have dreams and ideas of how life could be better, but often we've not had much opportunity or encouragement to think about how we might organize life in a better way. So we'll be using the Capabilities Approach as an example of how to critique the status quo (denounce) while offering an alternative way of understanding and renewing the world (announce).
But before we do that, I'd like us to spend some time with another tool, reflecting on the role of norm perceptions in social change. The concept of social norms helps answer the question of why it is so easy for most humans to simply go along with injustice, and why it can be so difficult to denounce that injustice and announce a different world. It reminds us that, simply put, human beings tend to feel, think, and act in ways that they believe are considered typical by those around them. We go along with our group.
We learn social norms both consciously and unconsciously. We pick it up when we watch how others act in a given situation. That's an ongoing process, too, as you've probably noticed when encountering an unusual circumstance: we tend to look around and take our cues from how other people behave. We also learn social norms from group identities and summary information, even if we don't have personal experiences with the information. We're taught that this is what we do (positive information), or that we are not like this other group that does something else (negative information). And we are trained in social norms by institutional signals, because we tend to value and go along with what our institutions tell us is important. All of this is largely unconscious and cultural; we soak it in and internalize it.
Social scientists have also described social norms in several layers: 1) what is commonly practiced in a group, 2) what members of a group believe is appropriate and expected, 3) what members of a group understand as morally required, and 4) what members of a group understand as legally required. At each level, the penalties for transgressing the norm tend to become more severe. However, social norms tend to operate in complex ways, and they vary from situation to situation.
As an example, think about all the social norms at work at an American football game. In other settings, adults physically tackling one another in an aggressive way would not only be inappropriate, it might be illegal. And cheering and encouraging that physical aggression would often be perceived as immoral, at the very least. But at the stadium, it is what is expected, and you are encouraged to get excited, celebrate, and enjoy a hot dog and beer. However, spectators are not allowed to participate, and those that do run onto the field will be expelled or even arrested. If you've grown up learning all those social expectations, it is likely you don't even notice them - this is just the way things are. You don't have to think about them, you aren't surprised by them, and they feel natural. But if you are unfamiliar, attending an American football game is more likely to be confusing, bewildering, boring, or perhaps even exhilarating.
Throughout history, social norms have been powerful vehicles for perpetuating injustice. People from widely different cultures and time periods have all come to accept, tolerate, and even protect egregious oppression - genocide, slavery, segregation, economic exploitation, sexual violence, war, and/or other oppressive systems - as normal. When oppression becomes built into social expectations, people are not any more likely to notice underlying expectations than the spectator at the football game - this is just the way things are. If you don't have to think about the norms, you aren't surprised by them, and they feel natural. The oppression becomes inevitable, and gets reinforced both through unconscious and intentional behavior, structures, and cultures.
As discouraging as this may sound, social norms also provide an incredible opportunity. If injustice can be normalized, so can justice. The question becomes: how can we influence social norms so that what we come to expect from one another is equality, compassion, well-being, solidarity, and the like? In a presentation on implicit bias in early childhood education, Dr. Walter Gilliam pointed out that human beings tend to -
"value whatever we measure. … If we can change the measurements, … then sometimes we can effect human behavior without the humans even thinking about it.” (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaYnDrKZqX4 )
In other words, we tend to value what we pay attention to. If you want to uncover social norms and their justifications in a given society or group, look at how they measure their success or well-being. If you want to use social norms to promote change, find ways to shift those measurements, to shift the attention, to measures that align with justice.
In terms of practice:
- A good first step is to begin making a list of the social norms that are operating around you, especially related to whatever issue of justice you are concentrating on.
- As your list grows, take note of how we could strengthen social norms that tend toward justice and replace those that tend toward injustice.
- Pay special attention to how adherence to the norm is measured, and concrete steps you could make toward changing the measure in the direction of justice.