In light of the #MeToo campaign, I’ve been thinking a lot about conditioning. The reasons behind the way men act around women, their treatment of women and their assumptions about women. I don’t know that this needs a trigger warning, but I will talk a little bit about rape, harassment, homophobia and racism.
I posted a status on Facebook that went *slightly* viral – it was shared over 500 times and garnered about 690 reactions. It stated some truths about men and how they respond to women when their advances are refused, and to me it seemed like common sense – but the amount of times it was shared spoke volumes about the way women feel they are received by men.
This idea of conditioning is not unique to sexism or, basically, treatment of women – it can be found in every single arena of human interaction, and is not unique to men. It’s basic psychology. So let’s get into it, and I’ll explore some of my own thoughts about it.
**Disclaimer** I only did one module of psychology at university and I slept through some of it, so please don’t take what I say here to be absolute truth. All this is intended to be is an exploration of societal conditioning, based on my own thoughts and reflections on the matter.
Conditioning is defined as “a behavioral process whereby a response becomes more frequent or more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement, with reinforcement typically being a stimulus or reward for a desired response.” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/conditioning)
Basically, you do something, you get rewarded for it, you’re more likely to do it again. Make sense? I hope so. Literally can’t make it simpler than that.
How does this all tie in to sexual harassment, racism and sexism? I’ll tell you.
Men have deemed themselves superior over women for years. Decades. Basically since the dawn of time. Just watch Mad Men, you’ll see what I mean. If you think about WHY this thought process came about, you can see it illustrated in the dynamics of hunter-gatherer/tribal societies. Men hunt, because they were generally physically stronger than women, who did more gentle things, like push full babies out of their bodies and pick berries. This carried on to Ancient Greece, where women were not allowed to leave the house unless they had a male escort (generally to protect them from being attacked and raped by other men), while the men were free to walk around as they pleased and prey on un-escorted women. I could carry on and give you a rundown of the past 1000 years, but by this point, it’s easy to see a pattern emerging. Men = strong, women = not. The fact that women were not given the platform to prove this wrong further cemented the idea in the head of men – things have always been done this way, with no problems. There were no problems because women did not have the platform to expressly say anything to the contrary. Even if they did, they were not listened to. Here’s how it goes.
A man meets a woman. Throughout their lives, they have been shown heteronormative, heterosexual relationships on TV. They see the roles men and women fulfill in life, and they use their parents as a model on which to base their opinions. If they see men domineering women with no consequence, it becomes the way they operate too. This man and woman fall in love and get married and have children. The children see their mother cleaning and cooking, their father working and paying for everything. This is then AGAIN normalised, and propagated. It continues. The behaviour may not necessarily be rewarded in the traditional sense, but it is by no means counted as bad, or incorrect, or wrong.
A similar structure can be seen in the treatment of people of colour by white people. Slavery, apartheid, racism in any sense, were all normalised things, but they were not seen as negative by *most* white people because it was just the way things were. Buying a slave, shouting racial slurs at people of colour, beating the woman who cleaned your house – all of these things were seen as normal, and they went unpunished. Not necessarily rewarded (again, in the traditional sense) but nobody really said, you can’t do that. It becomes a model for the next generation, and unless they are taught to think critically or that something may not be good, it will continue.
I think I’ve waffled a bit. I hope you’re still with me at this point. If not, I’ll try and sum it all up nicely for you now.
We have been conditioned into thinking that women are weak and men are strong, because we were told to think that by the men who built themselves a palace on the backs of black people who were told they were inferior to white people. Because these white men had white sons, they taught them the same thing. The white daughters were taught about their place in the family structure by their white mothers. Both the white sons and white daughters were taught/shown that they are superior to black people. Black people were forced to think that they were anything but equal to white people. This line of thinking was passed down without correction for THOUSANDS OF YEARS. Thousands. So it stands to reason that there are men out there who still view the bodies of women as something weak to be dominated and owned, because that is what history has taught them. They have never been punished, so it is not deemed as wrong. The same goes for racism. Homophobia. Intolerance of any kind.
How do we break this cycle? Sometimes it can be done through communication. Women marching for their rights, people posting long statuses on Facebook. Confrontation of abusers, even. Asking why they did what they did.
However. Change has to come from within. A person will only change if they feel it is beneficial for them to do so, and only NOW are the vast majority of people beginning to understand that the model on which they have based their thought processes is deeply flawed.
I think a lot of it has to come from teaching people – children, certainly – to question their thoughts and actions. Being mindful of what they are thinking. Understanding that most people are ruled by their emotions, and will respond with their emotions leading the charge. It’s important to remember that the mind is a malleable thing, and for most of humanity’s recent history, we have been advertised to, sold lies, led to believe that we are not enough unless we have this product or go on that diet. We listen to the people in power because we have put them there ourselves, instead of taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.
This does not, of course, excuse the horrendous treatment of people of colour, nor does it does not excuse rape, sexism, homophobia, or any other form of assault. But it makes it slightly easier to understand, and it makes it easier to forgive, when you remember that the majority of people are piloted by an inner 7 year old child who was not allowed to mature into their thoughts – instead they were taught to think by a white man on a television, spewing lies and hatred masked in sugar, profits, and a chance at popularity.
So the next question is, I suppose, how do we move forward? Do we forget the past? Forgive our abusers and never speak of it again? Get angry and shout and scream that you have been slighted and demand retribution?
We surround ourselves with compassion. We practise letting go. We engage in calm discourse, and we choose to let those damaged, broken people who refuse to turn away from the sadness and suffering in their hearts continue alone on their path, and focus on only bettering ourselves and the people who adore us. We teach others to think and respond in this way, and propagate a society and human race of compassion and understanding, one that is quick to listen and slow to judge, one that does not deal in anger but in peace. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but knowing that we have the capacity to live in this way makes it possible for those who choose to live like this to continue, and for those who don’t live like this to learn.
Otherwise we are destined to live in a damaged, broken and disgustingly inhumane society. Look at our past, and see how similar it is to our present, and then we can work to change the future.