Rejecting Your Own Progress? Why People Fight Their Own Cause

by Penny Robo

Throughout our history, it seems that any social changes have been met with resistance. And I do mean any change. Really, who hasn’t personally experienced being told that spending time on your phone is a symptom of humanity’s decline into boundless, world-ending narcissism and a sign that our generation is irreparably damaged?

And that’s just a phone! A device that permits mobile access to the majority of human knowledge and culture, connecting people across the world and allowing us to learn and share in ways not practical a handful of years ago, and positively inconceivable just a few decades ago. So when people can find fault in changes with a demonstrable increase in speed or quality or efficiency, is it any wonder that people jump on the chance to fight changes they can’t immediately, viscerally experience the benefits of?

No, it’s not a wonder, but is it ever frustrating. And, as it turns out, there are some theories for explaining the human urge to fight progress, even when it would directly benefit the person arguing against it.

Whether it’s a moderate arguing that disadvantaged people should wait “just a little longer” to demand civil rights, a traditionalist claiming that women have no place in voting, or people clamoring to deny certain marginalized people anti-discrimination laws in the name of preventing “reverse discrimination”, they share a similar sentiment: things are already where they should be, or close enough to not warrant change or complaint. The reasoning and method of reaction differs, but there seems to be that consistent core to the proceedings, that idea that progress for some does irreparable damage to all others.

Across the board, our history is stuffed full of individuals and groups that insist the status quo is the ideal, bursting with people that cannot grasp the difference between personal comfort for themselves and a greater justice for others.

Sometimes it’s relatively innocent, often it is not, and we’ll get into that, but let’s use a rather silly analogy to establish what I mean by personal comfort, and why the “average” person might not see that there’s a problem.

Imagine that 90% of your local shoe stores only sold men’s size 9. If you’re a men’s size 9, then congrats! You go in, get your shoes, and probably never give it any more thought. But if you’re an 8 or a 10, then buckle up because you’re going on a lengthy drive. And 7 or 11? You’d better hope you happen to live in a major city, otherwise you’re out of luck. Or you have to shop online.

Now imagine those shoe stores… are EVERYTHING. Employment, housing, social services, personal relationships, everything that is a part of living in society, is made to fit a distinct mold and taken as an axiom. If you fit what has been decreed as the norm, or are a half size away and can deal with the fit being a bit tighter or more loose than you’d prefer, you can get along pretty well. You can go get that job, find that apartment, get those wonderfully fitted sneakers.

And if, like me, you’re not the bog standard definition of a human being? You’re not a straight, white, cis man? Then you’re going to find yourself going to great lengths for even the most basic of societal necessities, or to find a girlfriend. Or, I suppose, you have to shop online for that, too.

In this largely arbitrary concept of what is “normal”, anyone finding themselves within that bubble has had little reason to question or examine it. Their needs are regularly met and, at a glance, the resulting perception is that the system works. Frustrating as it may be to combat that type of complacency, there’s another group that offers a more befuddling perspective, and that’s of people that don’t fit the mold yet work to preserve this system.

Why would people outside of that sphere, that have learned to operate within it, reject the idea of changing a system that passively or actively harms them?

Probably the biggest key to understanding this is the concept of cognitive dissonance, and whether you’ve heard of that before or not… you’ve heard of that. Everyone knows the phrase “sour grapes”. In Aesop’s fable, a fox tries to pluck a bunch of grapes from a tree only to proclaim, after realizing that they’re out of reach, that they’re probably sour. He can’t get what he wants, so he decides that he doesn’t actually want it.

The mental discomfort that comes from the divide between desire and reality is called cognitive dissonance, and we’re equipped with a multitude of mental defenses against the perpetual dissatisfaction most people would face in so rarely getting what we desire. One of the easiest is to convince ourselves we don’t want what we want so that we don’t feel bad about not getting it. But it goes further, past our physical cravings, and extends to ideology as well. If you’ve ever confronted a person holding two incompatible beliefs, you’ve seen this at play there as well.

Although those hoops are a much more difficult hurdle to overcome, obviously.

Someone says they’re Pro-Life because they believe all life is sacred, and that life begins at conception. Yet they’re also opposed to abortion in any situation, even when carrying a baby to term would result in the death of both the infant and the mother. To most people, these beliefs seem to be at odds with each other; the stated belief that all life is sacred conflicts with opposing a procedure that would save a life (by ending a pregnancy that would not have been successful no matter what else is done)

Of course, there are people that oppose abortion ideologically, but recognize that they may be medically necessary to save a life. But many of us have known people that jump through endless mental hoops to justify the direct contradiction of denouncing a lifesaving procedure due to considering all life sacred

And we all do this, every one of us, in countless different ways. From convincing ourselves that we don’t like a particular style if it’s not available in our size, to striving to find loopholes to justify an incompatibility in our beliefs. It can be a useful tool for our mental well being because, c’mon, life does not hand us everything we want. Life is unfair.

Which is yet another issue for our cobbled together brains. That’s why we love to engage in what is dubbed the Just-world Hypothesis. This idea, branching from discomfort with dissonance, holds that humans almost inherently require the knowledge that reality is ultimately fair. We, of course, know that is not true in any sense as we conceptualize fairness, but absolute acceptance of that would, well… it would destroy us, emotionally.

While the most obvious manifestations of this need can range from sentiments such as “money can’t buy happiness” all the way to the belief in supernatural rewards and punishments based on our actions (karma, or heaven and hell) and, eventually, resulting in people who actively dismiss changes that would benefit the disadvantaged group to which they belong. Acknowledgement of those disadvantages could be emotionally devastating if they found they ultimately did not have the means to alleviate them.

Ignorance is bliss.

And that’s why I like System justification theory; it’s a nice little bow to wrap up the ways humans use to get through their day (even at the cost of potential long term gains). I’ve seen these coping mechanisms at play in ways both subtle and extreme, that provide stability or crush progress. Here are just a few of these kinds of people I’ve known:

One such person is purely oblivious, just simply unaware that their hardships are unnecessary, and viewing their struggles simply as the way things are. The idea of a better way just does not occur to them; our culture is very adept at instilling the idea that we’re already the best we can be, with the reward for not following that belief usually little more than emotional despair, but the reward for adhering to it some measure of stability, even at an unsatisfactory quality of life.

Another person is prideful; their overcoming of the obstacles life has placed before them is of such importance to their personal identity that they demand all suffer the way they do or die trying (often literally). There can be a sense of entitlement when one works to operate in an environment not made for them, and as much of a right as they have to feel a sense of accomplishment in conquering the harsh environment they found themselves born into, it can manifest itself in incredibly unhealthy ways. These are often the same types of people that repeat to their children the same abuse they suffered under their own parents under the guise of character building, despite openly acknowledging both how damaging the experiences were to them and the issues they caused.

Yet another person is ignorant to their own advantages; they’re just a half size off and can force themselves into shoes not made for them, and refuse to accept that not everyone can do that (or should have to). They find themselves in a perpetual state of believing that others just aren’t trying hard enough. Thus, the failure of society to service its members is recolored as the failure of individuals, and that their hardships are self-imposed. This is an immediately understandable reaction to their experiences, but their refusal to accept any advantages they held in overcoming hardship only serves to bolster their ego; it does nothing for anyone else.

And some of the saddest ones have actual investment in this system. Consciously or not, they recognize that their ability to navigate the power structure in place affords them advantages over others. A white passing native might not want to give up her social standing above her darker skinned family. A “traditionally pretty” trans woman may enjoy her elevated status amongst her sisters, like a big fish in a little pond.

It’s ultimately no matter whether her motivation is selfishness or fear, her actions and goals are still the same; to uphold the status quo provided she can mitigate the harm to herself.

Fuck you, got mine.

And as disappointing as that may be for all marginalized peoples that can’t or won’t operate within these arbitrary expectations, that those figures exist in our midst does serve to illustrate one point in our favor. Shady machinations, selfish collusion with those that despise us… we don’t fit a singular mold. We’re just as flawed, as varied, and as human as everyone else. And just as deserving of a society that purports to embrace the variety of humanity.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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