by Howard J. Ross, founder & chief learning officer, Cook Ross Inc.
I recently saw an interview on the news with a seemingly kind and thoughtful woman who was talking about how she was supporting the existing ban by the Boy Scouts of America on participation and leadership by LGBT individuals. “I don't have anything against gay people,” she said, ”but I just want my son to be in a normal Christian environment.”
It occurred to me as I watched and listened to her that this was probably a good neighbor, friend and mother. She seemed lovely. She volunteers for the scouts. She gives generously of her own time to support the young people who are participating. I found myself speculating that she probably participates in the PTA and her church. She is perhaps the epitome of what we might offhandedly call a “good citizen.”
Yet, what she was saying, and what she is supporting are attitudes and policies that are anathema to what I believe.
Normalcy is a fascinating concept. At some level, every human being needs to have a sense of normalcy. As much as some of us think that we “walk to the beat of a different drummer,” overwhelmingly more of our lives depends on a certainty that normalcy provides for us. Brain research shows that we respond more comfortably to things that are predictable, certain, and dependable. Most of us have heard the phrase, “the only one who likes change is a wet baby!” Change threatens the stability of our lives. Even when we embrace change, often we are not satisfied with the way it turns out. (Hence the saying, “You better be careful what you ask for…you might just get it.)
Social systems are built on our need for stability and consistency. As humans, we all share a fundamental orientation toward social primacy. In 1943 Abraham Maslow created his now famous hierarchy of human needs. He hypothesized that “belonging” was the third step after we have first met our physiological needs and secondly our need for safety. New research, however, indicates otherwise. In 2007, Purdue University researchers wired the brain and found that “being excluded from a group triggers activity in the same regions of the brain associated with physical pain.” (Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death, Kipling D. Williams, Purdue University, 2007) Exclusion is painful. This makes perfect sense. The most vulnerable and formative time of our lives is immediately after birth. We are getting our first imprint of the word and culture around us. One of our first lessons: unless you belong to somebody, you die. Unambiguously, if nobody is there to take care of you, you have nothing to eat…you die. Even if you are Romulus and Remus, you still need the wolves!
Hundreds of famous studies have demonstrated this attachment to our social systems. We learn to go along with what people around us are doing because “fitting in” is essential to our survival. What everybody around us is doing becomes “normal” to us. Even at times when that “normal” behavior is outside of any core values that we might have. Consider, for example:
- • 160 years ago slavery was legal and “normal” in the United States and was practiced by all level of “moral” leaders;
- • 145 years ago typhoid laced blankets were distributed to Native American populations as a way to “control the threat” that they represented to westward expansion;
- • 100 years ago suffragettes were jailed for insisting on the right to vote, and Grover Cleveland, the President of the United States, said “Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.”
- • 80 years ago many physicians believed that mental illness was a result of blood toxification and removed organs to get rid of poisons, even though 40% of the patients died from the treatment
- • 70 years ago it became “normal” for Germans to turn in their Jewish neighbors so they could be taken away to be “exterminated”
- • 60 years ago “Separate but Equal” was the law of the land, and up to 50 years ago was still regular practice in many parts of the United States (in fact, one could build a case that it still is today)
- • 50 years ago people were regularly mutilated through lobotomies
- • 45 years ago homosexuality was officially classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association
When new ways of thinking or doing things are presented, they are often treated as “ridiculous!”
- • “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” said Harry M. Warner, Warner Brothers Pictures, in 1927
- • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom,” said Robert Millikan, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics, 1923
- • In 1895, Lord Kelvin, president of The Royal Society, said “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”
- • Henry Ford famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
- • “Babe Ruth made a big mistake when he gave up pitching” said Tris Speaker, Hall of Fame Outfielder, in 1921. Ruth went on to become one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
- • John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi told him “A guitar’s alright John, but you’ll never earn your living by it!”
The new, the different, the unusual are generally considered absurd, unreasonable, impossible, or threatening before they become real.
Just like it was normal for only men to vote, and for African Americans to be considered only three fifths of a person, it has been long considered that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is “not normal.” And our institutions reflect that view: marriage, the Boy Scouts, heath insurance and partnership benefits, even the acceptability of disparaging comments in civil discourse. All are built on a “traditional” sense of what’s normal.
We know that history teaches us time and again that we often look back at what was once normal and say, “What on Earth were we thinking?” Often with shame and embarrassment.
Women were really denied the vote? What were we thinking!?!
Black people were enslaved? What were we thinking!?!
Native American people were deprived of their lands, their homes, and their culture, and murdered indiscriminately? What were we thinking!?!
Many of the people supporting the existing Boy Scout policy are like the woman I mentioned earlier. They are good people. Kind people. Good neighbors. The kind of people you would love to have in your community. AND, they are supporting an exclusion policy towards young boys and teens who already suffer so much social exclusion that they commit suicide four times more often than their heterosexual peers?
What ARE they thinking!?!
I have no doubt that someday, hopefully soon, the Boys Scouts will change their policies to catch up with the Girl Scouts, who developed a non-discriminatory policy towards LGBT membership years ago. But until they do, it would serve us to remember that “normal” is simply an arrangement by people in society to go along with a set of rules that we have inherited. It is not Truth. It is not morality. And it is not divine.
And, in the case of the Boy Scouts, it is time for change.