Change happens. Can you handle it? Should you?

Recently, I was discussing North Carolina’s HB 2, the “bathroom” bill, with a conservative friend of mine. His position, like that of many conservatives, is that people should use the facilities for their biological sex and that no other criteria matters. This is the way it has always been and there’s no need to change it. I argued that what conservatives were doing was changing it, since before the law people could usually use whichever bathroom they wanted, as long as they went into a stall and kept to themselves–which is what people should be doing anyway.

This is really a “small picture” issue. During the conversation my friend suggested that I see Future Shock. I have seen the documentary and read the book upon which it was based, although it has been about thirty years. The premise is that technology is causing society to change so quickly that many people suffer from “future shock” because they are unable to keep up and cope with the rapid rate of change.

I first got online in late 1982 or early 1983, so I was far ahead of the curve as far as the information revolution goes. What we are seeing today is a communications revolution. Marginalized people can now go online and find people with similar characteristics. A transgender person in a small town in the 1960s, if they went public, would be treated like a freak, so they most likely remained closeted. Even if they knew another transgender person, the likelihood was that they didn’t actually know they were transgender, since the default position was to keep that hidden. Today, that person can go online and instantly find hundreds of people who can relate to their life, and chances are pretty good that they can find someone else locally. Similarly, Red Dwarf fans can find other Red Dwarf fans, atheists can find other atheists, English football fans can find other English football fans, and, unfortunately, white supremacists can find other white supremacists. Almost any tiny minority can find other people with similar interests and problems–and they can organize to help each other.

For a California-based English football fan, that may be getting a group together to convince a pub to open at 7 a.m. on Saturdays so they can watch a match together. For other minorities this gives them the means to organize politically. Atheists now have easily accessible legal resources to help them keep religion out of public schools and government. Transgender people can share information about which employers are accepting. Information has empowered them. The problem with this, of course, is that people who already had and used power don’t normally like it when others figure out that they have power to use as well.

Of course, I am pretty sure my friend and I had two very different conclusions on how to address the issue. The conservative view, as it has always been, is to slow societal change: The old system worked just fine, so we don’t need to change it. The liberal view is that change is inevitable, so everyone should accept it and adapt to the new norms.

As with just about everything else, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that trying to slow change works very well. In general, I like to see a two-pronged approach:

  • Manage change
  • Help people adapt

Well-managed change can usually be identified by the outpouring of anger from both sides. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a good example of this. LGB members of the military didn’t want to stay in the closet to serve, and conservative members of the military didn’t want LGB people serving at all. It was a solid middle ground that gave time for the conservatives in the military to adapt–or retire–while not denying military careers to LGB people. You can argue that President Clinton could have gone straight to giving LGBT people full freedom of gender identity in the military, but it might have severely disrupted an organization that is conservative by nature. The military took a generation to adapt, but it did adapt.

We had a similar transition with gay marriage, from civil unions to a few states legalizing it to the Supreme Court making it legal everywhere. I am never happy with one group being denied the same rights as the majority, but some people need shock absorbers. Racial integration in the military was slow, as was racial integration in schools. We are still moving–too slowly, in my opinion–toward gender equality in the workplace and in politics, because the people who have power don’t like relinquishing it.

One of the biggest problems is the media. I infuriated my nine-year-old daughter last night by describing the Bechdel test to her, and pointing out how few movies passed it. I don’t think every movie should pass the Bechdel test, but I also don’t see any reason why a kid’s movie like Kung Fu Panda 3 should fail. More women go to the movies than men, so, from a business standpoint, studios should cater to that. Yes, there will always be “chick flicks” and testosterone-fueled action movies, but there’s really no good reason that the 80% of the movies in the middle shouldn’t have roughly equal numbers of male and female leading roles. If we see more equality in entertainment, society will more readily adapt to equality in the real world.

Where we get problems are when people try to manage change by blocking change completely, such as conservatives wanting to stop the immigration of Muslim refugees until we can better screen them–but neglecting to fund improved screening tools or adding additional investigators. Similarly, wanting to deport immigrants and build walls to keep new immigrants out won’t work, unless you also work to reduce the demand for cheap labor here while helping our neighbors improve their economies to reduce the supply of cheap labor there.

There are many areas where Congress could help facilitate change. Taking gender pay inequality as an example:

  • Universal single-payer health care would allow women with small children to stay in the workforce part-time so they don’t lose ground to their male counterparts.
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave would allow parents to better share child rearing responsibilities.
  • Better child care tax credits or publicly-funded child care would also help keep women in the workforce.
  • Corporate tax credits for companies that can show equality in pay and benefits for female staff–and tax penalties for those who can’t.

I would be interested to research how the increased tax revenue from higher income for female workers would offset some of the additional costs for the first three bullets. My hope is that increased job satisfaction would also lead to increased productivity and profits for additional tax revenues. It wouldn’t be difficult to test some of these on a smaller scale on the state and local level, and I’m sure we could study how well similar programs work in Europe and Canada.

Most people have a hard time with change. It’s often tough to understand that, especially when the change they oppose is a change other people so desperately want or need. Forcing change down someone’s throat almost always triggers the gag reflex, so, if you can, cut it into smaller pieces for them.

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Filed under Listening, Technology, The Media

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