Policy-ing Culture

When much of an individual’s behaviour is influenced by one’s environment, culture becomes a flashpoint in debates and discussions. Justifiably or not, “culture” is often blamed for systemic faults we see in our communities. Nearly every type of institution – schools, companies, ethnic communities, countries – grapples with how to change some aspect of its culture. Trump’s comments on “locker room talk”, for example, have prompted discussions on rape culture in American society. At Stanford specifically, discussions of culture range from the overbearing influence of Silicon Valley to Title IX investigations to the toxic effects of binge drinking within specific student groups and in the university as a whole.

We often frame culture as the attitudes, opinions and values of a group of people. From this perspective, changing a culture requires individuals to change their minds. If a sufficiently large number of individuals alter their outlook on a certain issue, the cultural attitudes around that issue are likely to shift on a macrocosmic level. Yet by focusing on individual opinions within a society, we assume that only personalized approaches can truly change culture. Though such approaches have had success, they’re highly unfeasible on a larger scale. It would be nearly impossible to convince everyone in America to change their mind on a hot button issue. History is a testament to the stubborn willingness for individuals to remain steadfast in their beliefs.

Implicit in this perspective is the assumption that policy is too blunt a tool to effect change in something as nebulous as culture. Indeed, attempting to change minds through legislation, court rulings, or government actions is a hopeless endeavor. These mechanisms – though effective for governing a state – are meant to be applied to individuals en masse. They aim to curtail the actions an individual can take. As legal instruments, they exist to enforce, not persuade, often inspiring a backlash when perceived to be meddling with culture.

However, policy’s ability to change behaviour is precisely what allows it to influence culture. Over a longer period of time, it serves to normalize behaviour and attitudes considered “counter-cultural”. The case of gay marriage exemplifies this phenomenon. The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage didn’t immediately change people’s’ minds or make American society less homophobic than it was. There is little doubt that there are towns and institutions where homophobia continues to thrive. However, it forced even the most defiant communities to recognize the legitimacy of a significant group of people and their guaranteed rights under the law.

In the long term, the Supreme Court decision will serve to normalize gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. Young Americans will grow up in a country where gay marriage is legal. It will form an integral part of what they perceive to be “normal” – a status quo remarkably different from that of previous generations. Even prominent anti-gay marriage Republicans acknowledged the finality and consequences of policy in the aftermath of the ruling.

A similar example of policy altering culture can be found in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act or court decisions like Brown vs Board of Education didn’t stamp out racism. However, by prohibiting segregation and curbing discriminatory policies, these policies helped reduce racist practices. Individuals and communities were forced to change their behaviour in a multitude of ways – desegregation of housing, schools and voting rights. Though some may have disparaged these changes, they were forced to respect them as the law of the land. Individuals growing up at the time came to accept these changes as basic and fundamental. Racism may persist as a societal problem, but the policies enacted have gone a long way in diminishing its presence.

One could argue that in each of these cases, policy was a result of cultural change and had no role in actually changing culture – that gay marriage policy and Civil Rights were manifestations of changing attitudes about segregation and same sex marriage. This argument holds some truth; – it’s improbable that either issue would have risen to a policy level without some cultural-based impetus. However, it’s unlikely that George Wallace’s “Alabama” or Kim Davis’s “Rowan County” would have embraced desegregation or same sex marriage without external influence. Neither demonstrated any receptiveness to cultural change, fighting to maintain the status quo. It’s unclear how long 1960’s racism would have persisted in the Deep South without the intervention of federal policies.  That behaviour or statements once considered acceptable in 1960s Alabama are treated as racist and repugnant today is a testament to policy’s influence on culture (even in the most resistant communities).

We must recognize the power that policy holds and the intentional (or unintentional) effects it can have on our culture. It’s equally important we remember that this extends to Stanford as well.  Issues ranging from hard alcohol to student group membership affect the community we build. They leave an indelible impact on the experience of future Stanford students and the culture of this university.

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