My college major was originally going to be behavioral psychology, but along the way I switched to communication. The disciplines share a lot of ideas, particularly in the areas of imprinting, and the ways we react to fear.
As small children, we learn to associate positive or negative consequences with various behaviors, so we discover which actions are socially appropriate, and which are not. This is fine, as far as it goes: if I do “X,” I get praise, whereas if I do “Y,” I get a scolding, or I hurt myself somehow. But I’m sure we can all identify instances where people were taught differently from social norms, and were rewarded for behaviors that many of us would consider “deviant.” The recent Oxford school shooting comes to mind, where the parents apparently enabled the child in obtaining a handgun and threatening his schoolmates.
As a culture, as a community of humans sharing space together, what do we sanction, and what do we punish?
Animals typically narrow their social preferences to those who share their immediate surroundings. Humans do this too, of course; we learn to feel comfortable with those who look and behave like we do. Difference, again, is considered “deviant,” and therefore threatening. This is all happening at a subconscious level, and once we become aware of these tendencies, we can choose to behave differently. Those who ridicule “wokeness” seem to take issue with this kind of self-examination, this call to reflect on what we’ve been taught, and whether we are conscious of the outcomes of our choices.
Animals are typically motivated by fear, including the human animal. Difference seems threatening, difference makes one an outsider to the community, difference triggers rejection – for those who are unwilling to reflect on their fear, their insider status, their privilege. As I tell my Intercultural Communication students, it takes courage to interact across difference; you have to be willing to feel scared, to be rejected, to make mistakes, to be embarrassed, to get it wrong. You have to be willing to hang in there and keep trying. You have to be willing to do the work.
Let’s never give up trying.