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Harmful Societal Norms and Ways To Address Them

Updated: Jun 9



 

 

Societal norms are perceived rules and actions deemed appropriate or acceptable within a community or group.  Societal or social norms shape human behavior.  Let's consider the impact that seemingly appropriate actions have on child development- During these first years, the brain rapidly develops its neural mapping system.  The child’s brain waves are in theta states and, like sponges, soak up all information within their environment without any discernment between right and wrong. This information is used to shape the core personality traits, beliefs, and attitudes that the child will carry into adulthood. Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” Suppose we are primarily conditioned by age seven to see the world based on the information received during those years- what does that say about the current state of society, humanity and its future trajectory?  Are we, as a collective, capable of changing our behaviors to decrease harmful social trends and to increase equity, health, happiness, and safety for all population groups? The answer lies in each of us. Authentic change starts at the individual level, and the first step is becoming aware of how social influences shape our beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and choices.

Get ready to delve into the world of harmful and ingrained social norms. This article will not only shed light on these norms but also provide potential solutions to address them.

 

Gender Norms

  • Patriarchy- Is a social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.2. m-Webster, 2024). Governments in most, but not all, countries reinforced the patriarchal order in the post-World War II expansion of employment-based welfare provisions payable to the primary breadwinner (Cooke, 2011).

  • Toxic Masculinity- Our culture reinforces pressures for men to behave in such a way as to perpetuate domination, homophobia, and aggression, such as expressed in the term “boys will be boys”  (Morin, 2022).  

  • Gender Roles- Women are expected to be good cooks, men are expected to be bread winners, men are meant to protect women, behavioral norms such as boys will be boys, girls are supposed to be soft and nurturing and boys are supposed to be mischievous and childish.  In family systems, men are the disciplinarians and women are the caring and emotional support systems. 

  • Victim-Blaming- victims are blamed and held accountable for the crimes that happened to them.  This happens often in sexual abuse and rape cases where the woman is blamed for being out at night, being alone, wearing provocative clothing etc.

  • Dowry System- The dowry system is a social practice that perpetuates the oppression, torture, and murder of women in India. The practice of dowry is an expected part of marriage in cultures where arranged marriages are the norm. Violence can occur when the dowry or bride-price is deemed unsatisfactory by the recipient. In India, in spite of laws prohibiting the practice, not much has changed over the last 30 years (Banerjee, 2013).

 

Body Image and Appearance

  • Thin Ideal- The belief that being thin is synonymous with beauty and health. These behaviors are increased by the media, interpersonal relationships and self objectifying attitudes.   

  • Muscular Ideal- The expectation that men should be muscular to be considered attractive.

  • Skin Color Bias- Preference for lighter skin tones and discrimination against darker skin tones. Colorism, or skin tone bias, is an insidious form of bias that impacts people with darker skin tones across ethnicities and races (Tulshyan, 2023).

  • Ageism- Discriminating against individuals based on their age, particularly the elderly. Ageism leads to poorer health, social isolation, earlier deaths and cost economies billions (WHO, 2021).

  • Objectification- treating people like tools or toys, as if they had no feelings, opinions, or rights of their own (Cambridge University, 2024). Pornography is often an example of the objectification of women by men (Cambridge University, 2024).

 

Sexuality and Relationships

  • Heteronormativity- Assuming heterosexuality is the default or normal sexual orientation. It's the idea that romantic and sexual relationships are always between one man and one woman. Heteronormativity assumes heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation, and the only normal or natural way to express sexuality and attraction (Resnick, 2022).

  • Homophobia- Negative attitudes and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. Homophobic actions can include incidents of harassment, discrimination, and violence against people who identify as LGBQ+ (Resnick, 2023).

  • Sexual Purity- Valuing individuals, especially women, based on their sexual activity or abstinence.

  • Non-consensual Practices- Normalizing non-consensual behavior in relationships, such as marital rape. Marital rape was criminalized in 1993. Yet, legal loopholes in many states fail to hold the rapist responsible. The legal loopholes downgrade the sexual assault to a lesser crime or none at all if the victim is married to their attacker. State legislators must be pressured to update rape laws to include marital rape rather than considering marital rape a different crime.

 

Cultural and Religious Practices

  • Child Marriage- Marrying off children, often girls, at a young age. Globally, one in every five girls is formally married or in an informal union, before reaching age 18 (UNFPA, 2024).

  • Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)- The practice of altering or injuring female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Over 230 million girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation (UNICEF, 2024).

  • Honor Killings- Killing a family member, usually a woman, who is perceived to have brought dishonor to the family. Honor killing is a particularly harmful and disturbing form of the control over women’s behavior. It has been taking place for thousands of years, and continues to be practiced globally, particularly, but not exclusively, amongst communities in or from South East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean countries (Heydari et al., 2021).

  • Shame/Guilt Culture- “Shame culture” is a culture in which people are sensitive to and seek to avoid negative social judgments (Cuzins, 2018). The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in (Brooks, 2016).

  • Promotion of Alcohol- More than 200 health conditions, injuries, disabilities, and death are attributed to alcohol consumption. Moreover, the harmful consumption of alcohol generates violence, unemployment, and problems with the law, among many others (WHO). Culturally, we have a permissive attitude toward alcohol that is unlike any other substance—even tobacco. This mindset not only feeds into alcohol dependence—a condition that currently impacts more than 10 percent of the population —but also promotes the health consequences of even so-called “casual” alcohol consumption (Weiner, 2024). involved in more than 50 percent of sexual assaults, 40 percent of domestic violence incidents, 31 percent of driving fatalities, and 21 percent of suicides. In 2021, it was calculated that 4.9 percent of all deaths in the United States could have been prevented by removing alcohol. Excessive alcohol use costs the United States $249 billion each year—to put it in perspective, this is about half the cost of treating heart disease, which is the number one cause of death for Americans (Weiner, 2024).

  • Gambling- Gambling is a form of entertainment, but for many people and their families, it can become harmful. Taking a public health perspective, gambling harm is a significant social, economic, and health issue (Ministry of Health, 2024). About one in five people in New Zealand experiences harm in their lifetime due to their own or someone else’s gambling (Ministry of Health, 2018).

 

Health and Disabilities

  • Mental Health Stigma- Viewing mental health issues as a sign of weakness or something shameful. Substantial research shows that knowing or having contact with someone with mental illness is one of the best ways to reduce stigma. Individuals speaking out and sharing their stories can have a positive impact. When we know someone with mental illness, it becomes less scary and more real and relatable (APA, 2024).

  • Disability Discrimination- Believing that people with disabilities are less capable or valuable.

  • Anti-Vaccine Beliefs- Rejecting vaccines based on misinformation, leading to public health risks. It took 100 years to eradicate smallpox which killed 500 million people in the 20th century alone (Welsh, Allman-Updyke, 2017).

 

Race and Ethnicity

  • Racial Stereotypes- Preconceived notions about different racial and ethnic groups that lead to discrimination. Racial stereotyping involves a fixed, overgeneralized belief about a particular group of people based on their race. Large shares of Americans say there is at least some discrimination against several groups in the United States, including 80% who say there is a lot of or some discrimination against Black people, 76% who say this about Hispanic people, and 70% who see discrimination against Asian people (Pew Research, 2021).

  • Xenophobia- Fear or hatred of foreigners or people from different cultures. Xenophobia often overlaps with forms of prejudice, including racism and homophobia, but there are important distinctions. Feeling uncomfortable around people who fall into a different group, going to great lengths to avoid particular areas, refusing to be friends with people solely due to their skin color, mode of dress, or other external factors (Fritscher, 2023).

  • Cultural Appropriation- Using elements of a culture not your own inappropriately or without understanding.

  • The Asian Fetish- When white males have a strong tendency to romanticize and sexualize people of Asian descent (Bocci, 2011).  A study was conducted on white males who preferred romantic partners to be of Asian origin, and when asked why they preferred Asians over other ethnicities, their responses were positive, suggesting they are intelligent, beautiful, educated, and family-oriented. However, all the interviewees agreed that Asian women are submissive (Bocci, 2011).  Researcher Bitna Kim P.h.D. references an interviewee's statement stating, ‘Women serve the men; they do things for him that the Western culture has long forgotten. It's hard to pinpoint, and I'm not saying that Western women don't take care of their men, it's just the way Asian women go about it. We men want a princess in public and a whore in the bedroom. Simple as that....'" (Bitna Kim. (2011). Asian Female and Caucasian Male Couples: Exploring the Attraction p. 237).

  • Racial Stereotyping- Racial stereotyping involves a fixed, overgeneralized belief about a particular group of people based on their race. And while some people say things like, "I don’t stereotype anyone based on their appearance," the truth is that everyone does it due to mental shortcuts influenced by our racial socialization (Morin, 2024).


Economic and Class Norms

  • Meritocracy Myth- The belief that success is solely based on individual effort, ignoring systemic inequalities. Americans are more likely to believe that people are rewarded for their intelligence, skills, hard work and are less likely to believe that family wealth or the policies and systems that make success more available to some and not others, play key roles in getting ahead. And Americans’ support for meritocratic principles has remained stable despite the fact that there is less mobility in the United States than in most other industrialized countries (Boston Medical Center, 2021).

  • Workaholism- Valuing constant work and long hours as a measure of success. “Work addiction is a complex condition in which an individual develops a psychological, emotional, and social dependence on work,” explains Matt Glowiak, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Illinois. “It is chronic and progressive” (Marie, 2020).

  • Poverty Stigma- Viewing people in poverty as lazy or responsible for their situation. This idea that poor people are lazy and irresponsible is an inherited one and requires some historical learning (Chaim Waxman’s book “The Stigma of Poverty” is a good place to start). Briefly, this myth emerged in the 1300s in England and was then codified in the English Poor Laws of the 1800s (MIT, n.d.).

 

Family and Social Structure

  • Nuclear Family Ideal- Assuming that a family should consist of two heterosexual parents and their biological children.

  • Elderly Neglect- Believing that the elderly are a burden and should be placed in care facilities rather than supported at home. 10% of individuals aged 65 and older suffer from elder neglect and abuse.

 

Education

  • Standardized Testing- Overemphasis on standardized test scores as the primary measure of student ability and success.  There are, in fact, many types of intelligence. 

  • Academic Elitism- Valuing certain fields of study (e.g., STEM) over others (e.g., arts and humanities). Higher education has become a highly sought-after commodity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 16.9 million students were expected to attend undergraduate programs in Fall 2019. Modern-day universities feed into the frenzy by marketing their schools as the best educational experience money can buy – spending an average of $1,037651 (Von-Mann, 2020).

 

Legal and Political Systems

  • Corruption Acceptance- Normalizing bribery and corruption as a way to navigate systems. In 2016, the International Monetary Fund estimated that corruption amounted to roughly 2% of global economic output — between $1.5 and $2 trillion globally. Consider that in India in 2016, nearly seven in 10 citizens reported paying a bribe to access basic public services such as public schools, public clinics or hospitals, access to official documents, and utilities, according to Transparency International (Harvard et al., 2018).

  • Voter Disenfranchisement- Accepting barriers that prevent certain groups from voting. The disenfranchisement of Black Americans has long outlasted the end of the Civil War, with modern instances of voter suppression in the form of limitations on absentee and early voting, stricter voter ID requirements, restrictions on voter registration, and other systemic barriers that decrease the voting engagement of minority populations (Hill et al., 2021).

  • Corporal Punishment-Corporal punishment is the most common and widely accepted form of violence against children (Vaughan-Eden, 2018). Evidence for the detrimental effects of corporal punishment (CP) on children has been borne out by more than 50 years of empirical research (Vaughan-Eden, 2018). The use of corporal punishment to discipline children remains one of the last holdouts of old-fashioned childrearing in the United States (Gershoff, 2010). Roughly fifty percent of the parents of toddlers and sixty-five to sixty-eight percent of the parents of preschoolers in the United States use corporal punishment as a regular method of disciplining their children (Gershoff, 2010).


 Addressing Harmful Norms

Promoting education to challenge and change harmful beliefs and practices can help shift perspectives and trends.  It takes a generation to change a social norm, and increasing education around these harmful norms in schools and universities is a good place to start.  Implementing laws via policy reforms to protect individuals from harmful norms and practices is another area that can help reduce the impact and ever-increasing magnitude of these practices.  Encouraging communities to engage in dialogue, share personal experiences, and normalize the conversation over challenging topics can also affect change on a foundational level by changing these harmful norms at the individual levels as well as within family systems and communities. Providing support such as counseling, healthcare, and legal aid to those affected by harmful norms helps support vulnerable populations as well as affect change within groups that are causing the most harm to others.  Using media to challenge stereotypes, start conversations, and promote positive, diverse role models are other significant ways to address harmful social norms.  After all, change starts with each of us taking accountability and responsibility for our actions and how they impact others and finding support, community and resources to educate ourselves to improve the health and quality of life for everyone.   

 

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These social norms need to change. I see the next generation of youth doing their part to change them and there is a small movement forward but unfortunately it is very slow. The name “ woke” has been given to it and politicians regularly use it to instill fear in their voters that their way of life is being challenged as opposed to seeing it as an evolving world in need of love and acceptance of all. I’m happy that you are speaking about this subject and you have written this all beautifully ❤️ I know this was a lot of work and we all appreciate your hard work to make the world a better place for everyone. You a…

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Sarah
Sarah
11 jun.
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Thank you, sir, for sharing such honest truth and insight. It is time we start the conversation. Thank you so much for being here. 🙏❤️

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