“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This quote expresses what has become known as the Rule of Expectation, which states that individuals tend to behave based on how others expect them to perform. In other words, people subconsciously conform to the stereotypes others project onto them. This is a very powerful paradigm. Please stay with me as I try to unpack this and how it relates to our current social climate.
We all have expectations. We expect the sun to rise the next day when we lay our heads down on the pillow at night. We expect the car to start when we put the key in the ignition. We expect an apple to taste like an apple when we bring it to our mouths for a bite. This is an evolutionary trait that has made humans as a species able to evolve and mitigate danger, by remembering what is safe and what is threatening. This is the good side of this human trait. But, there is a very destructive aspect to this that has to do with our societal and interpersonal expectations, our religious and class biases, and our stereotypes and racism.
We have generalized societal expectations about certain roles of individuals, such as how a father or mother should act. Most are taught from a very young age how a man acts what is the woman’s place. We have television shows, movies, and books that show these “traditional” roles, and even using the word “traditional” proves the point. This starts from a very young age, and it is taboo for a children’s network to show a gender in a non-traditional way.
Most of us are indoctrinated into what a relationship and union is supposed to look like. And it is so much easier if no one ever questions these expectations, isn’t it? It would be so much better if everyone just believed that a relationship is only between a man and a woman, and that there were no such things as homosexuals, pansexuals and bisexuals. It would be so convenient for us all if we never had to consider what cisgender, transgender, bigender, or agender means. This is just interpersonal societal expectation.
We can reflect on religious expectations, too. If you’re from the United States, there is an expectation that you believe in the Judeo-Christian God, and that you don’t dare ever question that belief for fear of being sent to hell for eternity, or even worse, denied love and access to familial safety while alive on this earth.
Now we get to cultural and racial expectations. Do I even need to list all of these? I think you’re starting to get the point that I am using the word expectation instead of calling it what it really is: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, classism and racism.
I am reminded of, and I am relying almost entirely on, Anne Wilson Schaef’s exposition of five myths that she presents in her book When Society Becomes an Addict. She rightly, I think, states that we are all addicted to society itself and to its own explanations of itself.
The first myth is that ours is the only reasonable way to look at reality. We are the ones with all the answers and explanations. We are the ones who do it right, and anyone who does it differently is a threat to us. Just notice how quickly we [the U.S] label other cultures or even sectors of our own society as a threat or as terrorists if they see things differently and have the audacity to challenge our standards and the status quo.
The second myth is that our way is inherently superior and we can generate our own rules for explanation and self-preservation. This is what has become known as “American Exceptionalism”, which can mean that the history and mission of the United States gives it superiority over other nations. Because of this exceptionalism, we get to justify anything that we do, even break the rules, and even kill if it is in the name of God and Country. All you have to do is look at how quickly we will aim guns and missiles, even at our own citizens, when “our way” is challenged. Or how glibly we can call lies “alternative facts” if the truth doesn’t support the narrative. My husband, Ryan, has also coined a very apropos portmanteau, copaganda. How many times have you heard about or watched a television show where the police officer, in order to nail the bad guy, has broken the law in order to do so. Well, it’s all for good, right? At least they caught the bad guy before the last commercial break. We have in a small way been drip fed this concept that it’s okay for law enforcement to break the law, if it is for the good, until we have started to believe that it is okay. This myth is, in my view, part of what is behind our general acceptance of police brutality and even murder.
The third myth is we have the capacity to know, understand and to name other peoples’ realities. We eat food, they eat ethnic food. We wear clothes, theywear funny clothes. We’re going to heaven, they’re going to hell. We want peace, they want war. See how this false dichotomy is set up? We are constantly labeling everything as some sort of “other” if we don’t understand it. And then we’ll assign a reality to it, even if that is not true. It then becomes our expectation of it. This is what we do by stereotyping.
The fourth myth. Because we know the truth, it is possible for us (and how we self-identity) to be logical, rational, and consistent. We are the consistent ones and all other cultures and identities should be measured by us and the way we do things. When you listen to your own or someone’s language, you can tell when this myth is present by listening for “us” versus “them”. It becomes very clear when we start to lump people by their race, class, or any other identity, that we are arrogantly imposing our “correct” view.
And, therefore, if all of the other myths are true, then we have the capacity to play God. That is the fifth myth. In this assumed role of the Almighty, we get to name reality, call the shots, name the righteous, and punish anyone who doesn’t agree with it.
These five qualities have been labeled myths. These widely held, but false beliefs, are what are tearing apart this country. Understanding and seeing honestly these myths unfolding in our society is part of the necessary healing that I hope can take place. The next part of the healing is to change our expectations.
If I accept you as you are, I will only make you worse. So, I am expecting myself and everyone I interact with to start seeing and exposing all of the systemic racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, gender identity hate, and violence in general. I am going to start expecting from you what I think you are capable of becoming, and I vow to help you become that!
Sources of inspiration:
Rohr, R., O.F.M (2010), Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the 12 Steps, St. Anthony Messenger Press (Audiobook).
Schaef, A. W. (2013), When Society Becomes and Addict, HarperOne.
Mell, Ed, Canyon Strike, oil on canvas.