By Robert J. Burrowes
I routinely come across efforts to change an individual’s attitude, belief and/or value by using education to teach the ‘right’ one. This is most usually intended to lead to a better behavioural outcome, such as someone who is not sexist, racist or violent. I would like to explain why education cannot achieve such a change, except in the most superficial of circumstances, as the evidence clearly demonstrates.
For the sake of this article, an attitude is a settled way of thinking about someone or something, a belief is an acceptance that something is true and a value is a principle in relation to something judged to be important in life.
Attitudes, beliefs and values are primarily shaped by emotions; education is much less significant and only has impact if the attitude, belief or value is not deeply held. Attitudes, beliefs and values that are often considered ‘undesirable’ are particularly shaped by emotions such as fear, terror, self-hatred, emotional pain, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment and shame, and the relative importance of each emotion will depend on an individual’s culture and personal social context.
The most important emotion driving dysfunctional attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviour is terror. And education can have no impact at all on any of these when someone is terrified.
Why do I say this? Consider the following.
Human socialisation is essentially a process of terrorising children into ‘thinking’ and doing what adults want (irrespective of the functionality of this thought and behaviour in evolutionary terms). Hence, the attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours that most humans exhibit are driven by fear and the self-hatred that accompanies this fear. For a comprehensive explanation of this, see ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
However, because this fear and self-hatred are so unpleasant to feel consciously, most people suppress these feelings below conscious awareness and then project them onto ‘legitimised’ victims (that is, those people ‘approved’ for victimisation by their parents or society generally). That is, the fear and self-hatred are projected as fear of, and hatred for, particular social groups (whether people of another sex, nation, race or class).
This all happens because virtually all adults are (unconsciously) terrified and self-hating, so they unconsciously terrorize children into accepting the attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours that make the adults feel safe. A child who thinks and acts differently is frightening and is not allowed to flourish.
If you think this sounds preposterous, consider what happens to adults who present an idea that is beyond the most trivial variation of what is known to fit within the spectrum of what is socially acceptable in a particular culture. At the very least, they will be ignored and denied a voice in any significant mainstream forum. They might be ostracised. In some countries with more ‘democratic’ space, their ideas will be confined to activist forums or other marginalised spaces. At worst, they will be punished by the legal system and, perhaps, killed.
This is because the usual way of attempting to change attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours is indeed by trying to frighten someone into thinking or behaving ‘correctly’, that is, in accordance with parental or socially dominant prescriptions. The education system, the legal system and religion are all used to perform this function of terrorising individuals into conformity.
The education system threatens and inflicts punishment (that is, violence) if children do not accept the indoctrination and behavioural control to which they are subjected in schools, the legal system threatens and inflicts punishment if citizens do not obey the laws imposed by elites, and major religions threaten and inflict punishment if adherents do not follow key injunctions supposedly defined by that religion’s deity (as interpreted by its senior human representatives).
Individuals and society pay a high price for terrorising individuals into thinking and behaving in particular ways. For example, once an individual has been terrorised into being sexist or racist, for example, no amount of education in being ‘respectful’ of others can work (although they might be further terrorised into pretending ‘change’ to avoid further punishment). This is because respect for others depends on Self-respect. And any individual who is sexist or racist, for example, has certainly never been respected so that they are able to respect others in turn. Moreover, their (unconscious) self-hatred constitutes a huge impediment to desirable change.
Even worse, because the terror and other feelings that shape attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours are invariably suppressed below conscious awareness, the individual will be completely unaware that it is this fear and other feelings that makes them defend their attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours with such tenacity (and, often enough, with violence if necessary).
To reiterate then, an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours cannot be altered by education unless the attitude, belief, value or behaviour is very superficial and not held in place by unconscious fear.
And the only way to genuinely and fully release a person from an attitude, belief, value or behaviour held in place by fear from their childhood is for them to feel this fear consciously so that the fear can be released and the person is freed to consider alternative attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours. Feeling their fear consciously will be assisted by having someone who is capable of doing so listening deeply while the person feels their fear and other suppressed feelings. See ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening’. This will take time.
So if you want a man to cease being sexist, a person to cease being racist and someone to cease being violent, they will need listening until the fear and other feelings that hold in place the undesired attitude, belief and/or value, as well as any behaviours that arise from it, have been fully felt and safely expressed. To reiterate, the only (and usually applied) alternative is to try to scare them into your preferred behaviour (which cannot lead to any meaningful or lasting change).
If you would like to commit yourself to working towards a world in which children and adults are given genuine freedom to cultivate attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours that are nonviolent, you might like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
We cannot terrorise individuals into reaching their evolutionary potential. But we can listen, deeply, to assist them to travel their unique path in the fulfilment of their destiny.