Even with this summer’s extreme heat and drought, I still had to spray thistles in my yard; the heat doesn’t bother them. Not much bothers them. Thistles are very persistent weeds. Pulling them out by hand is useless because their root system is so thick and deep, they can just send up two new sprouts for each one you pull. Spraying them works much better because the herbicide gets carried down into the roots and prevents any new growth from coming up.
Much the same can be said about ridding our society of its prickly old prejudices and stereotypes. They’ve been around long enough to have a strong root system—that is to say, a large set of cultural assumptions or myths from which they grow. Trying to attack a prejudice without also going after its roots has little effect. Many people put huge amounts of time and effort into arguing, on the Internet and elsewhere, about how ignorant someone else’s beliefs are. But without addressing the cultural context of the beliefs, attacking those who hold them is about the same as trying to pull up thistles one at a time. Some may decide that they’ve had enough of arguing; but they still have no clue what the opposing view is about, and others who share their beliefs get even more vocal as a result of feeling threatened.
To dispel a prejudice effectively, one first has to consider: What is its history? What other beliefs are associated with it? What social structures reinforce it? What role does it play in the cultural drama in which it appears? If our social world is made up of the stories we tell ourselves about it, as has sometimes been said, then we have to understand these narratives before we can rewrite them.
That doesn’t necessarily mean social change begins in the library with a stack of books about history, folklore, politics, rhetoric, and so forth. Much of what’s involved in changing the world—“radical” change, in the original Latin sense of the word, from the root—is an intuitive process. We know what kinds of stories resonate with our culture because we’ve grown up with them and incorporated them into our own lives. When we feel the earth quivering under our feet, we know there’s a fault line close by. As Bob Dylan’s classic song puts it, we don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Today’s world may be more amenable to change than the world our ancestors knew, simply because the pace of change has become so rapid. We are witnessing cultural transformation on an unprecedented scale and, as a result, we don’t have strong expectations that our lives will stay the same. We’re more willing to consider ideas that would have been dismissed out of hand by past generations. But we may also feel so unsettled by the lack of constancy that we cling to old ideas long after they have outlived their usefulness, just because we can’t deal with any more revisions to our mental maps. I’ve sometimes thought that reworking our cultural narratives is much like composing social stories to help an anxious child get used to new places and events. For both, what’s needed is a reassuring storyline and enough repetition to make it familiar and comfortable.