It’s the outcome of your behavior that counts
In the mythos of the Marlboro Man and his kin, a real American, a real man, is strong, independent, makes his own choices and goes his own way. We’ve been taught that we ought to admire and emulate him and be rugged individuals too, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and choosing our own path. We’re also taught that worthy people do that, and those who don’t succeed have only themselves to blame. If we do something, it’s because we intended to do it. And if we didn’t intend to be racist or misogynistic, then we weren’t, and it doesn’t count for anything, because we weren’t laying awake nights plotting how to be hurtful or harmful. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
Your conscious intent is irrelevant; it’s the outcomes of your words and actions that matter.
We’ve been brainwashed to value individuality and to believe that worthy people behave as such. It’s a myth as dangerous as what the Marlboro Man was selling because meanwhile, most people are not conscious individuals. They are zombies, being run from behind the scenes by their wounds and their social programming. These people’s intentions are pretty useless because they mostly don’t have enough access to fully conscious decision making in order for that to actually count.
This comes up time and again in discussions about society and it’s ills. There’s this mistaken impression that most people operate from a place of choice, when in fact, most people actually operate from a place of reflex, particularly when under some kind of pressure. Most people are run by stories that come from their upbringing, their religion, their culture, and their own wounds. But until we’ve recognized them as stories and decided whether or not to still honor what they teach about other people, then we are a lot more like the walking dead than some icon of individualism and choice. The bulk of both racism and sexism is not overt and conscious — it’s reflexively running the show from behind the scenes.
It is important to note that biases, conscious or unconscious, are not limited to ethnicity and race. Though racial bias and discrimination are well documented, biases may exist toward any social group. One’s age, gender, gender identity physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight, and many other characteristics are subject to bias.
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.
Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.
Unconscious bias isn’t the only factor. Cultural narratives play a big part in harmful behaviors. The perpetrator may even have certain consciously held positive beliefs, but in the moment, act entirely differently from their stated values.
“When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, interviewed male college students in 2015, each could articulate at least a rudimentary definition of the concept (of consent): the idea that both parties wanted to be doing what they were doing. Most also endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters in both a hookup and in a relationship, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.”
These young men weren’t monsters; they weren’t bad guys and certainly didn’t think of themselves as bad guys — and yet, they were self-reporting that they were sometimes engaged in behaviors that might well come under legal definitions of assault. “In my own interviews with high school and college students conducted over the past two years, young men that I like enormously — friendly, thoughtful, bright, engaging young men — have “sort of” raped girls, have pushed women’s heads down to get oral sex, have taken a Snapchat video of a prom date performing oral sex and sent it to the baseball team. They all described themselves as “good guys.” But the fact is, a “really good guy” can do a really bad thing.”
These guys who said they valued affirmative consent didn’t have intentions to be harmful or abusive. They weren’t consciously thinking, “This girl owes me something so I’m just going to take it.” None-the-less, their social programming around entitlement to female bodies undoubtedly contributed to them disregarding their own conscious beliefs about a woman’s full participation in deciding what kind of sexual experience they were going to have together.
Marital rape wasn’t a crime in all 50 US states until 1993. Prior to that time, there was a wide-spread belief that wives owed husbands sex and that women’s bodies were not under their own control — that it was not even possible to rape your wife. It takes time for cultural narratives to change, even in the face of changing laws. Old ideas tend to hang around in our collective unconscious for a lot longer time then we would care to admit.
Loving vs. Virginia, the US Supreme Court case that struck down laws against interracial marriage, was decided in 1967 — a mere 52 years ago. Interracial marriage was considered aberrant because of the perceived inferiority of Black people. Black people were widely considered to be intellectually and morally lacking, to be predisposed to crime and sexual depravity, and to introduce the lowest common denominator into any situation in which they took part. Just because the Supreme Court struck down laws that enshrined those beliefs does not mean that the beliefs themselves have fully evaporated.
The author, Malcolm Gladwell, who is half Jamaican, talked about his own unconscious bias towards Black people in his 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. According to Gladwell, most decisions are best made not only by our conscious cognitive processes but by accessing all of our unconscious data and learning that has accumulated over our lifetime (which mostly manifests as a gut feeling). In most cases, this serves us well to do this, but it can also go awry when unconscious information contains bias and negative stereotypes. And since we are exposed to negative stereotypes about Black people in the media and in the news on a continual basis, it’s hardly surprising that even some Black people have internalized racism, just as many women have internalized misogyny.
And yes, the media and some cultural narratives are also guilty of perpetuating negative stereotypes about men and about White men in particular. Think of Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, or any bumbling and incompetent lout that is a stand-in for all White men. The point of this is not that some people are more culpable of perpetuating unconsciously held beliefs or being run by their wounds than others — it’s that anyone who hurts someone else cannot hide behind the notion that if they didn’t intend to be harmful, that it somehow doesn’t count.
The fact that you don’t have Machiavellian plots in your conscious thoughts is entirely immaterial. If you are traumatizing or marginalizing someone else with your words or actions, you are still responsible for that harm, even if you did it unconsciously. And the fact that you are pretty sure that you have never done anything untoward to other people is also not a pass to disregard what marginalized peoples are saying about their negative experiences at the hands of certain demographics, which you may be a part of. You are not the Marlboro Man (or Woman). You are not actually an island of individualism. You are a member of a society and you have collaborated with and co-created the world in which we all live, just as I have.
It is not that we have created the patriarchy around us. Or the working conditions, or even the dominant culture. What we have done is colluded with it. We cannot mature inside a culture without having internalized aspects of it. Our ability to change our political environment begins with the understanding of how we have helped create it. Our consciousness is where the revolution begins. Fifty percent of the work we need to do is on ourselves. The other 50 percent is to focus outward and use ideas like stewardship to redesign the practices, policies, and structures that institutionalize what we wish to become.
Carl Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
If you don’t want to be a zombie, run by your programming and your wounds, unconsciously inflicting wounds on others, you are going to have to make an effort on a regular and on-going basis to look below the surface of your reflexive responses to see what is actually driving them. It’s work to deal with your stuff and to keep dealing with it, but cleaning it up, and integrating your shadow* not only helps your fellow humans, but it is integral to your own peace and happiness.
So stop saying, “There’s no grand conspiracy against X or Y.” It’s an irrelevant assertion. There doesn’t need to be an overt cabal in order for harm to be being perpetrated on an individual and societal basis and for the bulk of that harm to be being perpetrated against vulnerable demographics. You might even be the victim of negative stereotypes as well, but unless those stereotypes keep you from getting a home or a job, until those stereotypes jeopardize your safety or your sexual expression, until they impact how you are treated by the law, or how your intellect, competence, and character are viewed based solely on your outward appearance, you may want to reconsider telling other people to sit down and be quiet because there is no conspiracy against them.
*In Jungian psychology, the “shadow”, “Id”, or “shadow aspect/archetype” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious.