There’s a lot more to changing the world than just pointing to a problem and saying “This is wrong—fix it now!” Yes, identifying the problem is necessary; but it’s generally not sufficient. That is because the existing situation, however unjust or illogical, has (or had) some degree of social utility—otherwise, it never would have happened. So when a particular way of doing things isn’t working well in today’s society, we should first examine how it was meant to work, and then consider how the problem might be solved while still accomplishing the intended goal.

Several years ago, I had a conversation on a forum with a woman who complained about her husband’s inconsiderate behavior. She was a short woman with a mobility impairment, and she couldn’t access the higher shelves in her kitchen cabinets without great difficulty. When she needed something from one of those shelves, she generally asked her husband or one of her children to get it down for her. Of course, it would have been much easier if all the items she regularly used were on the lower shelves; but when her husband did the grocery shopping, he often put some of them on the higher shelves without thinking about it. Although she had reminded him many times, he never paid enough attention to get it right, and there was always something she wanted that was out of reach.

The husband evidently had good intentions—he wanted to take care of his family by bringing home the groceries and putting them away. He probably felt that he was being unfairly criticized because the grocery shopping was enough of a chore in itself, without also being expected to remember what shelves his wife had in mind for everything. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but simply couldn’t keep track of all the details of what items she wanted where. Nagging him was counterproductive because it wasn’t likely to improve his memory and would only make him resentful.

I suggested that she reorganize the kitchen, with her children’s help, one day when her husband wasn’t at home. To the extent possible, everything would be moved to the lower shelves. Then the upper shelves could be filled with bulky extra items, such as multiple packs of paper towels and toilet paper bought on sale. That would ensure her husband couldn’t put any groceries there. She would also save money by stocking up on paper products while they were on sale. And because her husband paid so little attention to detail, he probably wouldn’t even notice that anything in the kitchen looked different. From then on, he would always put the groceries on the lower shelves, without even thinking about it, because that’s where all the free space would be.

In the context of changing the behavior of societies, rather than individuals, filling the available space also works well. Prejudiced assumptions and insensitive attitudes can be dealt with by ensuring that the public discourse reflects many different perspectives. This approach often results in more success than yelling at the majority group that they’re a bunch of bigoted jerks who don’t understand how privileged they are. Even if it’s true, they are not going to want to hear it, and they’ll dismiss the criticism as unfair and unreasonable.

But if people going about their everyday business just happen to find other viewpoints taking up the cultural space where the prejudices used to go—well, then it’s not so easy to stuff those big awkward prejudices into a space where they don’t fit anymore. And when there are a lot of diverse perspectives occupying society’s cultural-narrative shelves, there’s probably going to be something that looks more useful. So those outdated prejudices simply end up being set aside, like worn-out clothing or obsolete technologies, because they no longer have a place in today’s world.

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