Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Make it right


When I was doing research for my thesis I learned about all kinds of obscure sociological theories, psychological phenomena and advanced statistical functions. To be honest, I have already hidden most of the info deep in my long term memory (if I can even recall it anymore...)However, in all the hundreds of pages I read, there is one golden nugget of information that I litter ally think about every day.

This theory that now guides my life is called system justification. People are often faced with threats to the legitimacy of their social system. System justification is defined as “the psychological process by which existing social arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal and group interest” (Jost & Banaji, 1994, p. 2). In other words, in any given social system, be it a family, a church, a nation, or our world at large, things are the way they are (this is called the status quo). Often the status quo has some members of the system in a position of high status or power while others have less status or power. Jost and Banjai's theory proposes that people, regardless of their level of power or status, become comfortable with their status quo (all be it unhealthy and unbalanced) and justify it's existence. According to system-justification theory, when people are faced with threats to their system (i.e. social change) they try to restore their faith in the status quo by engaging in psychological processes that strengthen the apparent legitimacy of the social system (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004). For example, masculine and feminine stereotypes are often seen as complementary in the sense that each gender group is perceived as having a unique set of strengths that balance out its weaknesses and supplement the assumed strengths of the other group. However, the low status group is only complemented in areas that reinforce their low status (ex. women are seen as nurturing, not authoritative; blacks are seen as athletic or soulful, not intelligent; the poor are seen as resourceful, not capable).

Subordinate groups may be less prone to challenge the status quo if they are regarded as superior to the dominant group on some socially desirable trait (Altermatt, DeWall, & Leskinen, 2003). One particularly interesting finding was that often, because of their desire to maintain the status quo, men tend to prefer women who accept subordinate roles therein reinforcing gender inequality (Vescio, Gervais, Snyder, & Hoover, 2005; Lau, Kay, & Spencer, 2008) (so that's why I'm still single... haha). The complementary nature of the stereotypes create the fa├žade that both groups have advantages and disadvantages, reinforcing the belief that the system is fair and balanced, which it isn't.

So I bet you're wondering why I can't stop thinking about system justification... Since the day I first read about this theory I have found myself constantly thinking about Jesus. You see naturally, like the rest of us, I justify the system I'm in. I rationalize the fact that I don't recycle, that I lock my car doors in a bad neighborhood, that my students are academically under prepared (I now work at an HBCU where almost all of my students are African American and many are 1st generation college students), that I have a restricted role in my faith tradition, that I don't make as much money as my male coworker (even though I am more qualified than he). My natural default is to think that these things are the way they are. I learn to play the game of life by these rules, despite whether or not I think they are fair.

And then I look at the life of Jesus. Jesus ate with tax collectors. He chose fishermen to be in his inner circle. He talked to the woman at the well. He let the prostitute wash his feet with her tears. He threw the money changers out of the temple. He paid attention to the little children. He touched lepers. He died an undignified death. He took the punishment that I deserve. He threw the status quo out the freakin window.

When I'm really honest about the kind of woman God would really call me to be I feel certain that it wouldn't involve justifying a system. So every day I think about what I'm going to do that day to stop making excuses and start making things right. I wish I could say that I was good at this, but the truth is, I'm really bad at being radical. So lately my prayer has simply been this: Lord forgive me for system justification; teach me to be radical. Who knew prayers could be so nerdy?

1 comment:

Amanda Pittman said...

Very powerful, Shannon. One of the things that I love most, and find most challenging, about the OT prophets is that they imagine a new world in the face of a system that opposes it, a new world that God can bring about. I've been reminded of that in a powerful way recently.

By the way, my prayers are frequently that nerdy. : )