Orangutans, Mad Men and the Myth of Transformation

“It is perhaps not surprising, given the prevalence of male aggression against women in humans, that the role of sexual coercion as a male mating strategy in animals emerged into the mainstream academic consciousness after the women’s movement of the 1970s.” – Cheryl D. Knott, Orangutans: Sexual Coercion without Sexual Violence

Words are tricky things. They have the power to not only paint a picture, but also tell you how to feel about it. Take “sexual coercion” for example. An interesting term; it’s a way of saying “rape” without inducing a full-body shiver. Did you know that male orangutans habitually use force to facilitate copulation? Or, if you’d rather, did you know that male orangutans often rape female ones? It’s true.

Does that make you feel some type of way? Are you overwhelmed by a fit of righteous fury? Are you shrugging it off as ‘nature’? To be honest, unless you’re an orangutan, your opinion hardly matters. And until they decide otherwise, “sexual coercion” in orangutan societies will remain a socially acceptable, if irksome, reality.

The truth is, whether or not behaviour is socially acceptable is entirely predicated on the sort of society in which it occurs. Think about it, “socially acceptable” literally translates as “accepted by society”. If we live among nudists – being naked is the norm, among cannibals – eating Chad isn’t frowned upon. I live among neither, so should I attempt to take a bite out of Chad while streaking on the subway tomorrow, I’m guessing I’ll be writing future blog posts from a psychiatric ward.

Society and human interaction evolve in tandem. Ethics, philosophy, ideology, religion, impact the kinds of behaviours we can or cannot get away with. I remember watching Mad Men and cringing every time Betty Draper lit a cigarette while balancing a martini on her pregnant belly… I wonder what barbaric things I do today that will make my grandkids cringe.

Social change doesn’t happen overnight. And – as has been made abundantly clear by the avalanche of executive orders this past week – it is often fragile, illusionary and eagerly overturned by white guys in suits. But when it does happen (and it does happen despite how bleak things may currently seem) it follows a pattern, understanding which may allow us to better steer the process, avoiding pitfalls along the way.

As always, the first step is admitting you have a problem. It’s the inciting incident in the social consciousness, which sparks suspicions that maybe sending six year-old Timmy to the factory isn’t the best idea ever, that people probably shouldn’t be enslaved, and that women’s reproductive healthcare should be a right.

This light bulb moment is followed by rising action. Pressure for change builds through protests, think pieces, hashtags, speeches, marches, boycotts, violence and other drivers of social reform. A tipping point is reached when the newly antisocial behaviour is addressed in government – the symbolic core of society, the executive embodiment of peoples’ values. Legislative reforms reflect shifting norms and entrench our understanding of pro- and anti- social behaviours. Policy interventions set precedent for private actors and broadcast a county’s position to the rest of the world. If the interventions are effective, pervasive, and lasting – society readjusts. The majority rejects former behaviours and internalizes pro-social alternatives. Once a new behaviour is normalized, additional interventions are no longer necessary. Everyone is happy, until they are not. And the cycle is ready to start anew.

And now the catch:

Imagine you’re sick. Let’s say you have pneumonia because pneumonia is fun to spell. Pneumonia. You go to the clinic, spend what feels like four years in the waiting room and finally get a chicken scratch prescription for azithromycin (that’s right, I know all the drugs). You pick up your medication, after shelling out your life’s savings to the pharmacist, take the course of antibiotics, and… you’re still coughing up phlegm. Phlegm. What do you do? Do you spend the time, money and energy returning to the clinic and paying for another prescription? You’re almost all-the-way-better. The rest will probably clear up on its own. Unless, of course, it won’t.

This is the premise behind the Myth of Transformation. It’s easy to get excited about progress, even incremental progress. Once you observe positive change it’s tempting to declare an issue resolved and move on. After all, interventions, like prescriptions, are costly and time consuming. Decision-makers consider antisocial behaviour “resolved” when causes lose momentum, political capital runs out, easy reforms have been cherry picked, and superficial changes made. At this moment, the subdued behaviour manifests in less direct ways (e.g. through microaggressions) and regression to pre-intervention norms threatens achieved progress.

The Myth of Transformation is likely to undercut pressure for reform if:

  1. Interventions emphasize superficial targets – if the desired behavioural changes involve abstract concepts, such as ‘equality,’ social movements may use more tangible targets as proxies. Resolving the proxies may lead to the false perception of having achieved the ultimate goal. Some proxies for equality include transgender bathroom rights, women’s right to vote, and gay marriage rights
  2. Progress is difficult to measure – society cannot exert pressure on culprits engaging in antisocial behaviour if it cannot identify who they are. When it comes to gender equality, it is easier to isolate and shame companies with unequal representation in the workplace, it is more challenging to find ones that violate equal pay laws. For this reason, the former social issue has seen more progress than the latter
  3. Social movement fragmentation/loss of focus – the plight of third-wave feminists: sexual liberation vs. intersectionality, otherwise known as the (arguably) lesser issue that affects white women vs. the greater issue that doesn’t
  4. It is financially lucrative to maintain the antisocial behaviour
  5. Institutional barriers prevent progress – this is too important to explain in point form. Instead, please watch this documentary

The following graph (hand-crafted with sharpies for your enjoyment and also because I am not proficient at Excel, despite what my resume says) illustrates the cycle of behavioural evolution and the Myth of Transformation as imagined by me. I’m not saying it’s groundbreaking stuff, but maybe some orangutans will find it useful. I hear there’s a whole zoo of them in D.C.



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