In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses three common reactions to learning about inequality: Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage.
“Why do we have to talk about inequality so much in sociology? Sociology is so depressing. I want to talk about something more positive.” Anyone who’s taught sociology has heard something like this from their students. Talking about social inequality, exploitation, and oppression can be hard. It is easy to feel individually powerless when discussing how social systems disadvantage some to privilege others.
However, as Dr. Phil taught us, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge. Before we can do anything to address social inequality we first have to face it and learn how it is created and maintained. If we hope to create a society that is more fair and just, we cannot let our discomfort derail our learning.
The sociologist Nancy Davis (1992) outlined three common reactions that sociology students have when discussing social inequality: resistance, paralysis, and rage. Each of these reactions is a problem because they can impede your learning. Let’s take a look at each one and then comeback to discuss what to do if you find yourself stuck in one of these reactions.
Sociology, as a discipline, is often counterintuitive (i.e. contrary to what our intuition or common-sense tells us is true). Sociological research challenges widely held beliefs about how the world works. Thus, it’s not uncommon for sociology students to read the findings of a sociological study and think, “but that can’t be true!”
Resistance occurs when a student is unwilling to accept evidence that challenges their worldview even when they have no reason to doubt the legitimacy or accuracy of the evidence. Students who have social privileges may resist acknowledging them because they feel doing so would cast them in the role of victimizer or oppressor. Similarly, students who do not have social privileges may resist acknowledging them because they don’t want to accept that they are at a disadvantage or that their life will be limited by forces outside their control. More generally, we have all been taught that the U.S. is the “land of opportunity” and that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Any evidence to the contrary is primed for student resistance.
Social inequality is created by the interactions of governments, businesses, and a myriad of other organizations. Individually we have very little influence over all of these groups. Thus, it’s easy to feel powerless to do anything to address social inequality.
Paralysis occurs when a student reacts to a discussion of social inequality by throwing their hands up in defeat and thinking that the issue is too complex for them to do anything about it. If social inequality is “never going to change,” or it is, “out of my control,” then you don’t have to worry about it. Whenever a student feels totally overwhelmed by social inequality, paralysis is likely to occur.
Social inequality describes how some people enjoy privileges at the expense of others being disadvantaged. Anger is a normal reaction to discussions of injustice and inequality, especially if you’ve been personally negatively affected by it. The prejudice and discrimination that creates social inequality aren’t issues “out there” floating in the ether, but something people deal with every day; social inequality is painfully real.
Rage occurs when a student gets so angry about social inequality they are no longer able to take in new information. When anger grows into rage it can be blinding and narrow your perspective on the issue. You may even want to direct your anger at the nearest student from a privileged group. For example, one heterosexual student becomes the figurehead for all the oppression created by homophobia. When you stay in a place of rage, there isn’t much room left for your personal growth and learning.
How to Deal with Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage
When students tell me that they were really bothered by something we discussed in class I always say back to them, “how wonderful!” It’s wonderful that an intellectual discussion can stir up such strong emotions within us. It’s wonderful that students have the opportunity to engage with ideas that profoundly challenge them. And it’s wonderful that you have this brief period in your life where you are surrounded by others who are also being challenged so that you can share your experiences while learning from theirs.
Often, it is the ideas that we are most uncomfortable with that we have the most to learn from. Anger, frustration, exhaustion, and exasperation are all common side effects of learning. If you find yourself experiencing resistance, paralysis, or rage, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “why does this make me so uncomfortable?” Chances are, the answer will help you figure out how to continue your learning.
- Let’s take a step back. In general, why do you think it’s hard for people to talk about social inequality? Explain your answer.
- Now do some personal reflection. Do conversations about social inequality make you uncomfortable? Give some specific examples of situations that you would be uncomfortable with. Why would this make you uncomfortable?
- Have you ever experienced resistance, paralysis, or rage during a conversation about inequality (either in a class setting, outside of a classroom, or online)? Explain what happened.
- Listen to this National Public Radio (NPR) podcast, “In Politics, Sometimes the Facts Don’t Matter.” Describe what “backfire” is and how it may make it hard for people to change their minds about social inequality.
That will be the first and last time Dr. Phil is mentioned on this website. We apologize for any discomfort you experienced during the reading of this article. ↩