I saw a Facebook post that said, “I wonder why we did not fix this racial issue when we had a black president for 8 years?” This social media post was presumably a response to recent Black Lives Matter protests. My response was to suggest that 400 years of systemic racism can’t change in 8 years. Wouldn’t it be great if protests on a grand scale initiated long term systemic change? Unfortunately, drawing attention to societal problems does not fix them. Personally, I get discouraged. How much is really changed?
The 1960’s civil rights movement did not ameliorate racism. The Me Too movement has not stopped sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The Peoples’ Climate March in September 2014 was the largest and most diverse climate mobilization on record, and yet, we continue to experience global warming and increasing natural disasters. The Women’s March was a worldwide protest on January 21, 2017. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. And yet, in the United States, the average female’s unadjusted annual salary is approximately 78% of that of the average male. A moment in time, a day, or a period in history does not, in itself, cause long term change.
It is human nature to return to our set point or comfort zone. Despite raised awareness and good intentions, we fall back to prior behavior. The rate of relapses among people who set goals is high. Perpetrators of domestic violence are reported to be violence-free up to three years after treatment. Figures vary on substance addictions, but approximately 40-60% will relapse. 97% of dieters regain what they lost within 3-5 years. Medication non-adherence leads to worsening of disease, death, and increased health care costs.
Here’s what doesn’t work for systemic change:
Intentions alone are not sufficient to sustain change. Excitement fades.
Negative emotions such as shame doesn’t produce change. We all experience negative emotions such as regret, shame, fear, and guilt. But negative emotions are the least effective change strategies. For example, scolding a heavy drinker won’t cause them to stop drinking.
Information is not sufficient. Information is only as useful as what you do with it. You can know something and still do nothing. Well-intentioned advice does not produce motivation for change.
Even with compromise, people tend to go back to their set points.
So, if the question is, “Can people change?” The answer is yes, and no. We can change our individual habits and behaviors and never address societal change. Change is rarely just one thing; it’s a lot of connected things and sustained change doesn’t happen without a consideration of broad implications.
So what does work for systemic change? Systemic change happens on a policy and procedural basis. Individual change is insufficient for systemic change. Systemic racism, sexism, and other isms are broader than individual people and require policy and procedural change.
For example, perpetrators of domestic violence do not enter treatment because they have a change of heart. Abusers who demonstrate significant change are externally motivated to change, rather than internally motivated. External motivators may come from a spouse who will leave them if they don’t change, or the threat of jail. Internal motivators such as remorse do not lead to lasting change. Remaining abusive is easier than changing, and more rewarding for the abusers.
Although I can become discouraged about racism, sexism, etc., I support community and political efforts for change. Participating in elections is one of the key freedoms of American life. Many people in countries around the world do not have the same freedom, nor did many Americans in centuries past. No matter what you believe or whom you support, it is important to exercise your rights. Continue to march, protest, and raise awareness. But be sure to vote and work toward systemic change.