University Class

University Class

Most people believe they are capable of independent thought and action. But are they really? Doesn’t the social structure determine our behavior?

In Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War there’s a discussion of Pickett’s Charge – thousands of Confederate men lining up and charging straight at the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. Why did they all line up and charge? Because everyone else was lining up and charging – and who was going to say “No, I’m not going?” It’s a tragic example of the Abilene Paradox.

The social structure influenced – dare we say determined – behavior.

There are hundreds of rules for “correct” or “proper” social behavior. We start learning them as infants and it continues until we die. For example, what parent hasn’t been embarrassed by their toddler removing their diaper in public and running free? And what do we tell that toddler – “We don’t take our clothes off in public!”

Most of the rules we learn are meant to ease the friction of human interactions – people aren’t that easy to get along with, after all. So we learn not to stare, call others names, to be rude, and apologize when we bump into someone. The rules are necessary most of the time but when are they not?

The simplest answer is when the social structure robs us of seeing others as individual human beings – worthy of respect, compassion, and able to contribute. The KKK and white supremacists have a social structure that actively denies that people who look different have an equal place in society – and they are not alone. They represent the fifth stage – where our tribe is people and everyone else are things. And emotionally, we can break things without feeling the guilt that comes from hurting people. The social structure reinforces the worst traits rather than keeping them in check.

And the really terrible aspect of all this is that in the United States of America and most of the world no one is allowed to force anyone into thinking the “correct” way. So our social structure works against us – creating barriers to our speaking up and telling individuals or groups, “No, that thinking is wrong.” Instead, we cite the First Amendment and defend the hate speech. And while I defend the Constitution that doesn’t mean that I or any other private person has to provide the platform that allows the individual filled with hate to fill the common arena with their hate.

So we can’t just sit quietly and endure. Instead we must let it be known that we don’t agree with the hate speech when it occurs. As I was once told in a college debate – Silence implies consent.

So, if we see or hear someone being harassed, abused, or discriminated, then it becomes our responsibility – our duty – to step forward and confront the evil – even when the “correct” or “proper” thing to do is to sit back.

Because the social structure influences behavior – and we make up the social structure.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.