Constructing Our Sins: How social problems are a product of our beliefs about them – Part I: The Theory

When people say that you “create the world you live in,” it is neither a delusional fantasy of godlike power nor a morally bankrupt metaphysical solipsism. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that everything you experience in the world is not experienced in its raw form, but through the very subjective filter of the individual human mind. Often times we live our lives with little examination of these filters, and as a result, we never properly acknowledge how much effect they have in creating the world we live in. But it could very well be that our lack of insight into these filters not only colors our interpretations of the problems of the world, but also contributes to those problems as well.

We do not have direct access to the world, contrary to what people may believe. All experience has to be sent through our limited five senses. But after that, we have to make sense of that information. We have to give it definitions we can understand, we have to compare it to other information we have, and we have to organize it into artificially constructed categories. These are all types of filters we use in processing the information to make it usable to us. These filters have multiple sources. Some are cultural, such as in associations of color. The western white wedding dress can actually bring associations of funerary rites to some Asian cultures, while the traditional wedding dress in China features patterns of red and gold, associated with luck in China, but building a wedding dress that brings up other associations in western culture. Other filters are built from personal experience, such as music of a pleasant period of life creating nostalgic associations, or traumatic exposures creating phobic aversions. At the heart of every person, is a fundamental set of these filters, core beliefs that paint an attitude of the fundamental way the person sees the world. A person who sees success and failure as being dependent on personal character will treat failure with shame as a signal of his own personal weakness. A person who sees success and failure as being dependent on skill, however, will treat failure as a sign that he needs to improve skill, without placing any moral stigma on his own character. The degree to which a person is controlled by these filters depends on how aware they are of their own core beliefs. A person of great introspection and self-insight will not only know what their core beliefs are, but will also understand what the limits of those beliefs are, and are capable modifying their beliefs to the needs of the situation, and will exercise control over their filters and core beliefs. A person who has not examined their core beliefs thoroughly, however, will not be fully aware of what they are and where their limitations lie, and will largely be unconsciously rigid in their beliefs, and so can actually be controlled by their filters. In psychology, for instance, the non-organic disorders that develop often originate in these filters and beliefs. This is why two people experiencing the same event can have two drastic reactions; the filters they use to process the event creates a meaning that can either lead to growth and health, or anxiety, depression, self-deprecation, etc. This is also why many therapies, from the examination of the subconscious in psychoanalysis, to the cognitive restructuring of Cognitive behavioral therapy, the focus is examining the basic assumptions people use to understand the world.

When it comes to how we address the world we live in, our filters do a lot to affect the people and communities around us. How do you view competition? Is competition a means to test and therefore improve a skill or idea, or is it a mandate to destroy and crush opposition? The former view encourages fair tactics, and may even ultimately build productive bonds and alliances all in the name of improvement, while that latter encourages cheating and has no direct say in the improvement of self or others. How do you define problems? Do problems originate when something attacks the status quo, or do they emerge when the status quo itself is not operating properly? The former view looks to attack a problems head on each time it happens, while the latter looks to cut off the problem at its root to let it whither on its own. How do you view the “others” in the world? Do you see the world as fundamentally like you, or fundamentally different from you? The former allows you to place yourself into the circumstances of one facing the problem to hunt down the cause, while the latter encourages you to place the cause in the difference itself. Final, how do you decide the morality of a potential action? Does the morality of an action depend on its justification, or do actions have their own moral content? The former means that one could potentially take any action for their cause, so as long as they view their cause as just, while the latter forces a person to decide which actions are themselves ever justifiable, and which ones are never to be used. In each of these cases, the filter applied affects not only the information one takes in, but also, how they respond back towards the world. In sum, these filters shape how the world is perceived by the person, and then reflects out through the person’s actions to shape the world itself.

The Mentality of Social Aggression

Social aggression is an issue that can help illustrate how the filters actually create and perpetuate social issues. In social aggression, abuses are perpetrated on people because of their membership in social, economic, racial, or gender groups. In research on social aggression, such as school bullying, racial intolerance, or gender based violence, there are common beliefs that do tend to both reinforce, and become reinforced by the abuse. These include beliefs that normalize aggression, define social roles according to aggression, and finally beliefs that reward and excuse the aggression.

The first belief trend is that in the environments that foster the aggression, mentality of the aggressor is that if they don’t abuse the victim, the victim will abuse them. Studies on bullying, for instance, have shown that bullies are prone to having a bias towards seeing other people as being motivated by aggressive intent, even when presented with events that are aggressively neutral. The common and basic assumption here is that the basic motivation of every person is aggression. Because of this belief, abuse becomes a logical conclusion, because it is merely an extension of the perceived motivational norm of the people in the environment.

Second, there are only 3 roles that are allowed by people in this environment: aggressor, victim, and bystander
(and also). This mindset sets up a dyad of aggressor and victim, with a third category of people who are motivated to not intervene. Usually this motivation comes from intimidation (don’t intervene or become a target) or social pressure (not our problem, stay out of it, don’t bother, etc). The passivity of this bystander role not only allows the abuse to continue unhindered, but also isolates the victim, and can, through their silence, allow an abuser to assume consent and support for the abuse. In contrast, the environments that are not prone to abuse replace the bystander role with one of someone who intervenes to counter or diffuse the aggression and protect the victim, creating alternate ideas, presenting protest, and offer the counter-voice to those who perpetrate abuse. In this new role, they intervene, support the victim, and are empowered enough to speak their dissent against the abuse. The difference between the two is that in the abusive environments, objection to the abuse is not allowed, and so the allowed roles that are accepted in the environment are those that enable the abuse.

In these environments aggression is accepted as a tool of self-efficacy; abuse is not only useful in getting what you want, but socially sanctioned. Violence and aggression can easily get what people want, but in just environments, the aggression is checked by social pressures. Specifically, the violence that would get the reward is not seen as acceptable in the environment. For instance, environments that deem see sex with an intoxicated individual as acceptable would see an increase in chemically assisted sexual assault. Instead, just environments define self-efficacy along the lines of the development of technical and social skills. In these environments, for instance, it is not acceptable to have sex with an intoxicated individual, but would focus on romance based seduction skills. The abuse, then, can only be perpetrated if the social environment makes allowances for the abusive behavior.

Finally, in abusive environments, there is the building of sympathy with the abuser, and the blaming of the victim. It is actually very difficult for people to intentionally harm each other. Most individuals are prevented from acts of violence because of the human capacity for empathy. However, empathy depends on how human and how like you you believe the other is. In an environment that allows abuse, sympathy needs to be shifted towards the abuser, and the victim needs to be dehumanized, or else empathy would prevent people from allowing the abuse. Whether its society blaming a victim’s clothing choice for an assault, an assumed slight on the part of the victim, or a fabricated flaw imposed on the targeted ethnic or racial group, the victim is forced to take responsibility
and the aggressor is seen as someone who has been forced to make the abusive behavior. For instance, the genocide perpetrated on the Native American population was justified in the name of “civilizing the savages” and the abuses perpetrated were seen as the “” done because the native populations needed it to be done. Because the fault now lies with the victim, there is no social pressure to prevent the abuse, and the abuser may ever receive reinforcement through a sympathy surrounding being forced to take on his burden.

What this shows is that the violence in the environment are perpetuated by the beliefs of those in the environment. Aggressive intent is a possible intention, but it is not the only intention a person could have, and so an assumption of aggressive intent is not a fact, but a belief and opinion until true intent can be proven. When it comes to social roles, there are a number of possible roles: aggressor, victim, bystander, protector, negotiator, communicator, de-escalator, emotional supporter etc. The restriction of such roles to the first three do not therefore reflect a reality, but a choice and a belief. Likewise, the decision to view aggression as a form of self-efficacy as opposed to skill development as self-efficacy is not a statement of fact, but of belief and opinion. Finally, placing responsibility on the victim, and sympathy upon the abuser, instead of choosing the opposite, is a statement of belief, not fact. In taking on these beliefs, and in adopting a worldview and mindset based on these beliefs, aggression and abuse are committed and perpetuated.

To be Continued…

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2 thoughts on “Constructing Our Sins: How social problems are a product of our beliefs about them – Part I: The Theory

  1. Pingback: Constructing Our Sins: How social problems are a product of our beliefs about them – Part II: Real World Examples « Zachary Maichuk's Blog

  2. Pingback: Constructing Our Sins: How social problems are a product of our beliefs about them – Part III: Consequences and Conclusions « Zachary Maichuk's Blog

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