I recently finished Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, an excellent, impeccably reasoned critique of the rush to apply (or misapply as the case may be) the findings of neuroscience to solve questions about innate differences between men and women. The whole book is well worth a read, but here I wanted to specifically talk about the broader applications of her discussion of “half changed minds”.
Fine is specifically discussing how parents attempting to raise their children in a gender-neutral way are hampered by deeply ingrained gender norms. She describes implicit association tests and other means of teasing out the differences between how we really feel about a given subject – be it gender, race, or meatloaf – and how we think we feel about it. What she says (and this is born out elsewhere and taken up by other authors of course, but these things all coalesced for me while reading Fine’s descriptions) is basically that our high-minded conscious selves are just a wee part of our whole selves, the selves that make decisions and react to stimuli.
So our our ingrained habits absorbed from without affect our decision-making. That’s obvious, right? I’d think so, but I will readily admit that I seldom take the time to meditate on the practical implications of this and I think if we all did, we’d be better off as individuals and as a society.
Exposure to advertising, the things those who raised us did and said during our formative years, tropes and archetypes in stories and films and songs, traumatic and pleasurable experiences, etc. etc. influence the complex web of brain activity that leads to even the simplest of decisions and reactions. When it comes down to it, we are less a single entity in charge of ourselves than a whole little world, constantly interacting with and being informed by the bigger world outside ourselves. We are not only the aspirational, conscious bit we’d like to see ourselves as, but also a whole lot more.
For example, think of that heated moment, a fight, say, where you’re caught up in a frenzy of emotion and shout out something utterly truthful that you hadn’t expected to say. You catch yourself, and protest “I didn’t mean that!”, but somehow you did, or at least part of you did. Dazed and upset by the revelation, you puzzle over where it came from. Or, let’s take up racism. I know few people who espouse any naked kind of racism and I’d say a healthy majority of the people I know have an internal narrative about racism that goes something like ‘I know about racism, I know it’s out there, but I am certainly not racist’. And yet, there’s that moment where a hiring manager peruses a résumé with a typically African-American name on it and that knowledge on some level impacts the hiring manager’s impression of their suitability for the job. That may not reflect that HR professional’s conscious ideas about black people, but it does reflect what s/he has internalized from living in a society with unhealthy discourses on race. The same lessons can readily be applied to gender and all kinds of other identities.
If you’re like me, you’re embarrassed by the parts of who you are that don’t square up with who you think you are. But we need to get over that and, rather than declaring definitive things about who we are – “I’m not racist, I don’t hate gay people, I don’t think women are less capable than men, I don’t value the lives of children in Afghanistan any less than the lives of children in Connecticut” – we need to recognize the breadth of who we are and talk declare who we want to be.
So yes, racism and intolerance and sexism and a whole lot of other counterproductive internalized products of the world without are swirling around inside me. So what do I do with that? I own up to it. I recognize it. I do a little consciousness raising. This is hard, though, when you’re clinging to a notion that you are responsible for everything that comprises your identity. There’s often a shame attached to the cognitive dissonance of saying you feel or believe one thing and then having these reactions and impulses and inclinations that don’t square with that. That shame then frequently drives us to further repress those things, perhaps even to the point of obscuring them. But, when we can’t see them, when we can’t get at them, we can’t actively work against them.
When we let go of that kind of shame, we give ourselves the space to address these unsettling parts of who we are. Rather than giving us a free pass for our shortcomings, this process removes the impulse to conceal and deny them. And if we take a more expansive view of who we are and realize that we don’t have to defend the entirety of who we are (since a lot of it is everybody else), there’s a lot more potential for change. The analogy of a country is fitting here. Even the most self-avowedly patriotic Americans are happy to say “this is what’s wrong with America and we need to change it”. Recognizing things they want to change in their country doesn’t make them less American, it doesn’t mean they don’t like America. It means there’s work to be done to make it a better place. We’re all little countries.
And before you roll your eyes about my tl;dr platitude here, just think about it. Think about what powerful drivers shame and the defense of our self-image is and about how useful it is to be able to be able to let down your defenses and admit your faults in a bid to pick up a chisel and refine things.