Recent pieces by Chaun Webster and Guante, in this editorial space (refers to Opine season where some of these posts originally appeared – rlm), eloquently raised the issue of male responsibility in the face of sexist behaviors, speech and cultural norms. Like all issues that have to do with culture change, this one is played out at macro and micro levels; social crises and personal confrontations; artistic ventures and private conversation. They brought to my mind a small story that I did not observe – but was part of – at a print shop I where I worked years ago. It’s an incident that still intrigues me as part of the puzzle of how we get to influence each other and regenerate our degraded social environment.
I was working as a screen printer in a T-shirt shop. There were usually about five printers, mostly dudes, during the day with several working evenings during the busy season. In those days people didn’t have gizmos to plug into their heads for a direct feed of their favorite tunes. There was a single radio/cassette player on which we were forcibly exposed to each other’s musical tastes as we mixed inks and loaded shirts onto the rotary printer. We also talked among ourselves. You learn a lot about co-workers when you stand next to them all day for years.
One year, just as I was leaving on a two-week vacation, they hired a friend of mine as a shirt folder. This was an entry-level position that involved counting shirts in and out of inventory, counting them out for orders, catching them as they came off the dryer belt and counting them yet again before packing them for shipping or pick-up. I knew Diane as an activist and community journalist and had suggested she apply for the job opening.
From her post at the back end of the dryer Diane could observe the social life of the print area. One common form of entertainment immediately caught her attention. When women walked past the front of the Warehouse District shop, the guys would crowd into the doorway to broadcast their approval with whistles, invitations and elbowing each other. With the excitement passed they’d troop back to their stations until the next diversion happened along. On top of the discomfort this caused my friend she also had to wonder how I would fit into this ritual cycle when I got back. She didn’t think this was a kind of scene I’d participate in but, on the other hand, she didn’t know me all that well.
What happened is that when I returned the behavior abruptly stopped. Life went on as before on the shop floor and it was only from a conversation with Diane a few years later that I learned about the experience at all. I didn’t witness it.
What was that about? The question is more complex than it might seem. What is apparent is that we each generate a social field of influence that we are often unaware of. There’s a couple I know who radiate such exuberant, generous optimism that it infects everyone around them. Their spontaneous smiles are so contagious that must think that most people in the world smile most of the time. We all know individuals who strain under the burdens of the world to such a degree that everyone they meet can feel the weight on their shoulders.
We primates are a mimicking kind. From babyhood we learn the structure of our world by studying the cues and clues provided by the conduct of our elders. We grow up in cultures whose values we both absorb and push back against. We gain social approval by acting in ways that we hope will deliver it. We look to others for permission to act in ways that reflect our deepest values or our cheapest attitudes.
In a study I once read about, students were surveyed about racial issues on their college campus.
Subjects would stand in line where they could hear what those in front of them said. Some of the “subjects” were plants, assigned express clearly racist or anti-racist viewpoints. They found that the students in line behind would tend to follow the lead of these opinion leaders in their own responses. Were the students empowered to speak their minds by the boldness of the plants? Did they synchronize their views to align with whoever set the tone by taking a firm position? Were both of these dynamics at work for different students?
But why do some social force-fields influence the culture of a group more than others? Why did my posture prevail over that of my more numerous co-workers? Did some of my friends drop the sexist posturing when I came back because they were not truly comfortable with it to begin with?
What I have concluded is that we have more influence over our social environment than we realize, and that it stems not just from what we do or don’t say but from who we are. As Gandhi put it, becoming the change we want to see is a fundamental part of the process of bringing it about. It challenges us to stop thinking that we are merely reacting to the cultural tone of the social spaces we find ourselves in. We are powerful participants in determining that culture.