The first step in changing our world is an examination of what actually constitutes reality. We are all products of our environment and as a result we inevitably take many things for granted, believing them to be the natural order of things.
Social reality is an expression of human agreement, someone is the president of a country and has the powers of that office because a system of government is created and acknowledged by the inhabitants of that country. When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change.(1)
In the early twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci, who spent most of his life in one of Mussolini’s prisons, identified a phenomenon he called cultural hegemony. Gramsci used this term to describe how we all believe that the way things are is the natural order of things.
A good example of how cultural hegemony operates is slavery. There was a time in the Western world when slavery was considered ‘the natural order’. Certain people were seen as a slave class and were owned by other people. Social realities, and even the economies of the time, were built around this idea and nobody – even the slaves in all likelihood – thought there was anything that could be done to change it. Slavery was, in fact, so much part of social reality that wishing to escape from it was seen as an illness.
In 1851, American physician, Samuel A. Cartwright described a mental illness he called drapetomania – an illness he believed afflicted slaves who were inclined to run away. Cartwright said this illness was a result of masters who, “made themselves too familiar with [slaves], treating them as equals.“(2)
He went on to say that,
“If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.“(3)
It’s now clear to us that slavery is not the natural order of things but rather a social reality based on economic motives and mistaken ideas. People like us made that reality. And, equally, people like us changed that reality.
So, how do we tell the difference between unchangeable reality which is outside of our control and reality that can be changed? As someone pointed out to me recently not everything is possible. But what happens if we just accept the limitations (as we see them) and don’t try to change things? If God had wanted us to fly he’d have given us wings…
The question is tricky. How can we tell the difference between mutable and immutable reality before we begin? Maybe there is a solution just around the corner which we can’t see from where we stand? Which seems like a good reason to start out. And yet it is true that some efforts to effect change will be futile – so, how much banging our heads against the unchangeable can we stand before our heads explode?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, by the way. Sorry. But maybe you do.
I have been thinking about it though and all I can come up with is that I wonder if the answer is something to do with love? Not Hollywood love but real, raw, visceral, never-giving-up love. The kind of love that parents have for their children. The kind of love that holds the atoms of a stone together. Where nothing is too hard or not worth the effort even when the chances of success seem slim. The kind of love that makes us try and try and try even when we fail and fail and fail – and then when we’ve tried everything possible – we try something else. Maybe we try the impossible. Because it matters.
1) Paul Lample, Revelation and Social Reality, p.9
2) Cartwright, Samuel A. (1851). “Report on the Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. DeBow’s ReviewXI.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3106t.html. Retrieved 2007-10-04.
3) Arthur L. Caplan, James J. McCartney, and Dominic A. Sisti (2004). Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine. Washington, D.C.:Georgetown University Press. p. 35 ISBN 1589010140.