Thursday, June 26, 2014

Burn Bright: On Cultural Change

What does it take to bring change, lasting change?  I'm not talking just any change, but specifically changes to those things we do or say that hurt people, yet continue to do.  We meaning enough of the population within a culture to be an ongoing problem, not just a small number.

There are always radicals at the edges, people way beyond the norm who either hurt people to the point most of culture is uncomfortable with it, or are so caring that we either see them as heroes or as a bit loony.  While the hurtful and harmful extremes are an issue, it is when the hurt and harm are coming from the middle of the bell curve, not the outliers that I'm concerned about.

People say oh, it's just words, or that's what kids/girls/boys do, or any number of dismissals.  These dismissals imply that beyond the issue that is causing the harm and hurt, the culture finds those things acceptable, or at least not unacceptable enough to do anything about them.

They might be "just words", but the same words said enough, said forcefully enough, or said by enough people, become more than just words.  They sink in like a morning mist, settle, and stay there.  Only with enough heat from the sun or a strong enough wind will that mist leave.  The same is true with words.

But language we use doesn't change simply because someone speaks out and says it hurts.  If culture accepts the language used, it will keep being used.  By the culture as a whole.

It's the cultural shift that changes people's thinking making hurtful language in an area no longer relevant or of any use, bringing about inclusive thought processes that naturally provide inclusive language that I'm a proponent of.  As long as inclusive and non-hurtful language is something people are trying to do with a lot of effort, the underlying cause remains unchanged, and it becomes a matter of hoping you (generically) don't slip and say the wrong thing because you weren't paying attention instead of the inclusive and non-hurtful language being your default without trying and sometimes things just coming out wrong and you being shocked you actually said something that sounded like that, instead of being pleased with yourself that you said everything in a non-hurtful way.

And that culture shift can't be regulated into existence or pushed on people, it has to be modeled and lived and caught like fire in the soul from the passion of those living it.  Cultural change begins in me shifting my perceptions and thought processes and world views, then living them with passion for those around me to see and have a fire of passion lot in them for the same.

I remember a friend of mine in college.

He had been quite hurtful to the LGBT community there on many occasions, or to individuals in particular, as a result of his religious beliefs and how he chose to act on them.  At a certain point, he became convicted for these actions and felt the need to support the people in the community and love them.  I wasn't involved in the community at the time, but knew him in a different context.

He realized he didn't really know them or what he could do to help them and love them, so he decided to start attending the weekly meetings for the group on campus.  He was quite surprised that they welcomed him and made him feel at home there.

He learned a lot, both about himself and about the community during the period he attended the group.  He grew in many good ways, and became much more compassionate and loving in general.  He changed many things he did.

One thing that stood out in particular was something he did that he didn't think of as hurtful, and wasn't something that crossed his mind before that as being an issue.  It was his use of phrases of the form, "that's so gay" and similar for things he thought were stupid.  To him, it wasn't saying anything about gay people, only about what the person was doing, so it never dawned on him to see it as an use.

After a few weeks, hearing the word "gay" using in the context of the LGBT community, he began to rethink the phrase.  In his own ears, the meaning had changed, and he began to take offense with himself for using it.  He worked hard to change his language, and he spoke out when anyone else used the phrase, at least when people outside the LGBT community used it.

It was never a phrase I had used, and I did find it offensive, but I had never spoken out about it, had just let it pass.  I cannot hear the phrase today without remembering his passion concerning the hurt it could cause.

Living life with those the phrase could affect, and having a face to go with the word changed him.  And the passion that resulted changed many around him.  This is how cultural change starts.  It takes time, but it changes not with the regulations or laws, but with people changing themselves, living their passion, and modeling what is right.

The end of the Civil War and the freedoms that began there did not end the hurt.  Over a century later, the Civil Rights movement was fighting the cultural issues that had not changed.  And today, another half a century later, not everything has been fixed.  But the changes from the mid 1800s to today are striking.

Laws and regulations don't bring cultural change, but they do open the door for the dialogue to start, for people to put faces to the names and words, for passions to start being shared.

As just one point of fact.  If it is so important to people in Belgrade to keep gays from being visible for a march that would happen just one day that they were preparing acid to throw on them if they marched, what must their day to day lives be like?

The government there in Serbia can't change the culture, but by changing their policies, laws, and regulations, they might begin the process of allowing cultural change to happen.  It may take a long time, but the change isn't impossible.

Activism and lobbying can help bring about political change, can help open those doors for dialogue.  And activism done right can ignite the fires of passion in people to begin making changes in their own life and where they are.

The next step, though, is in living it, walking it, modeling it.  Cultural change begins at home, in your house, in your neighbourhood, in your community, in your region.

Gandhi is well know, among many other things, for the statement that translates roughly, "Be the change you want to see in the world."  This is what I'm championing.

I can't change the whole culture of the world or country myself.  But I can change myself.  I can be conscious of what I see and do, of how those affect others.  I can keep in mind that it matters not at all if I think my actions or words are acceptable.  I can consciously analyse if I hurt people, even, and especially, unintentionally, and can look to how I can change my words and actions to avoid that in the future.

I'm not talking avoiding speaking truth or being true to myself because it might offend or upset someone.  Far from it.  The truth can hurt, but lies, even if they avoid immediate hurt, will hurt eventually.  I'm talking looking at what I'm doing and saying and seeing if my language and actions are inclusive, if they avoid hurt that doesn't stem from being honest, if they mean and look the same to others as they do to me, and so on.  I'm not talking changing everything, or walking on egg shells.  I'm talking being conscious and deciding objectively what I can change.

I am responsible for my own words and actions, and only my own.  This is a paraphrase of something Temple Grandin shared, reprased to be more straight to the point for me.  I am responsible for my own words and actions, and only my own.  I am not responsible for your reaction, or how you take what I say or do.  But if there is something about what I say or do that can be changed to avoid hurting you, I need to seriously consider it and decide if I'm willing to own leaving it unchanged.  Be the change you want to see in the world.  What do you want to see?

I can change myself.  And I can show that change, through my passion and actions and speech, to those around me.  And they can catch that from me, can change themselves.  And they can show that change, through their passion and actions and speech, to those around them.  And that is how cultural change occurs.

Cultural change cannot be regulated and forced by law.  But it can occur.

Be the change.  Live it.  Embody it.  Model it.  Burn bright.  Burn bright.


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