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Friday, October 25, 2013

On the assimilation of non-mainstream groups....

While on Facebook the other day, I saw a post in a group asking why gay men should work so hard to get society to accept them.  The questioner asked why gay men don't just insist on being accepted as they are rather than looking for approval from society.

When I first saw the post, I had a sort of "Duh!" reaction in that I was like, "Of course people want to fit in!"  But then, I thought about it an realized that I hadn't really thought about *WHY* people should work hard to fit in.  Instead, I just took it for granted that people would want to.  I've been thinking about it and wanted to write down some of my thoughts.

Before the thoughts, I do want to say that these thoughts can really apply to any group outside of the mainstream of society looking for acceptance, not just gay men.  I will use that group since that is who was asked about and of course some of the particulars will change depending on the group, but I think that the broad strokes are universally applicable.

First off, the question posed had a faulty premise.  The question assumed that we have an "either/or" situation.  Either gay men are accepted or they remain themselves.  I reject that premise.  There is no reason why it cannot be both, at least in the United States.  I will say that the writer was from a Pacific island, so there may be cultural differences that militate in favor of an "either/or" situation rather than a "both/and" situation.

If you study history and movements for acceptance throughout (Western) history, you will notice that there are some patterns that emerge.  I do want to stress that this is all based on the Western experience and may or may not be applicable to non-Western civilizations depending on cultural variables and situations.  I think they are universally applicable, but I could be wrong.

When a new group emerges, the first impluse of the mainstream society is generally to suppress, or at the very least challenge, it.  After all, that which is new is also scary and a possible threat.  As such, it needs to prove itself.  The initial members of the group have to fight hard for acceptance and to gain a bit of a foothold in the society.  Once the foothold is gained, the following generations work to increase that acceptance.  If the group moves slowly and proves their worth, the acceptance tends to come more quickly.  If the group moves too quickly and tries to make too much change too quickly, society pushes back and acceptance is that much harder to achieve.

The thing about acceptance is that it changes both the group being accepted and the group accepting it.  Neither can survive the acceptance unchanged.  This is true on the individual level and on the societal level.  Think about it.  How many times have you met someone and it has made a difference in how you think, react, believe, or in any other way?  The only way to avoid change is to completely isolate yourself from any other person or group, and even then change will tend to happen, only much slower.  So the idea that a group can force another group to accept them "as they are" and expect to remain unchanged (implied in the question) is unrealistic.

At the same time, it is important for societies to respect the individual groups for who they are and allow them to retain their uniqueness while it is also important for members of the groups to realize that they need to make certain accomodations to the society as a whole.  There may be practices that need to be curbed (not eliminated!) or toned down in public to facilitate the assimilation process.  I know that there are going to be people who disagree with me here, but I believe that if a group is looking to assimilate themselves into the larger society, they need to be willing to move at the pace dictated by the society with a periodic push if necessary.

Now, everything I have written above was written with the premise that assimilation is desirable.  However, the questioner was wondering if assimilation is desirable, so I want to address that question now.  I think that assimilation is desirable if only because making a group a part of the larger society makes it harder to do things to the group.  The degree of assimilation also matters.  If a group manages to completely assimilate itself into the mainstream of society, it suffers less afterwards.  If the group only partly assimilates, then they are more likely to suffer aftereffects.  It also matters how much change the society is expected to take at any given time.

A society is like a living organism, if you try and force too much change down its throat, it will choke and there will be problems.  Part of the problem in the US today is that many, many groups have tried to force lots and lots of change on the United States in too short a period of time and the society has not had time to assimilate one change before having another forced upon it.  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that all of the changes are bad.  But, as with any living organism, change needs to be gradual in order for it to have the greatest effect.

The larger problem with the United States lies in the Western conceit that Judeo-Christian culture is the pinnacle of human culture and that all others must adapt themselves to it rather than vice-versa.  There is also the tendency (at least in the US) to look at anything which is Judeo-Christian in origin as "the right way" and "the way things are supposed to be" and to automatically reject anything that disagrees with it as being completely wrong.  This makes the assimilation of any group outside of the mainstream problematic at best and impossible at worst.