Intellectual Refraction

My college sociology classes exposed me to concepts of social deviance I had never encountered in the “real world.” Once exposed to those concepts, I looked at the world through a different set of eyes. No longer could behaviors be labeled as simply good or bad; behaviors were expressions of a complex set of drivers shaped by the environment, by psychology, and by social structures. “Deviance” was a moving target; unacceptable behaviors during one time frame became not only acceptable but socially embraced in another. Societies changed in much the same way that biological organisms evolved in response to changes in the world around them. Social deviance serves an important role in society by establishing, at any moment in time, boundaries of “good behavior.” But those boundaries never have been solid, firm, or immovable; they are constantly under assault by sociological forces.

The reason social deviance came to mind this morning is that I listened to a StoryCorps conversation between a 42-year-old woman and her 71-year-old aunt. The aunt had come out as transgender in the late 1960s. Her parents had sent her away, concerned that the condition might be contagious. A few years later, she underwent sex-reassignment surgery, now called gender confirmation surgery. Over time, her family came to accept her; she was no longer the deviant outcast she had once been.

The woman’s experience seems, to me, a great example of how social deviance exists—at least in some cases—at the intersection between psychology, biology, and sociology. Her family’s eventual acceptance of her as a woman is evidence that love can overcome fear if given a chance. But her family’s initial rejection of her demonstrates how perceived “otherness” can be a powerful negative motivator. “If you’re not like me, you’re bad or dangerous; not to be trusted, not to be allowed into my inner circle.”

I’ve expressed regret that I didn’t pursue and complete graduate coursework in sociology. I really loved learning about social structures and how they form and change and disintegrate and re-form. I’ve forgotten almost all I learned from my sociology classes. When I read something written by sociologists, some of what I learned tries to surface in my brain, but it never comes fully into my consciousness. And, of course, since I completed my undergraduate work forty-four years ago (!!!), the academic world of sociology must have changed radically. I’m sure some of what I learned has been replaced by better, stronger, and more complex theories. It would have been fun to have stuck with a subject I found so fascinating.

It’s silly to even think it, but I think the world would be a far better, more peaceful, more accepting place if everyone in it had been exposed to some of the concepts I learned about social deviance when I was in school. Though I don’t recall being told this specifically, I remember receiving the message, loud and clear, that social perspectives at odds with one another are not good or bad, they’re just different. Sure, there’s good and bad in the world, but we need not—and should not—look at everything through the lens of righteousness. I think people would be more open-minded if they had been exposed to the things to which I was exposed during my education. That is not to say I am the poster-boy for open-mindedness; my embarrassing biases and prejudices are the stuff of legends. But a little more willingness to accept that people see the world through the lens of different experiences would go a long way toward greater serenity.

I suppose it’s never too late to learn, or to re-learn. But I’m not sure I have the energy nor the discipline to recapture what I once knew, much less to catch up on a discipline that has had forty-four years to mature.  So, I’ll be satisfied, to the extent I can, to learn a little here and a little there and to continue to allow my early education to shape the way I view my world. I think of this concept as intellectual refraction; rather than seeing the world through a black and white lens, I try to see it from a perspective that reveals all its colors and requires me to concentrate on what all those colors mean.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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