Social room: making a more civil society

The US school shooters weren't just pathological murderers, they were responding to suffocating beliefs about masculinity. The 'sea of pink', Nelson Mandela and the AIDS memorial quilt show that to thrive, everyone needs more social room.

Kenneth Bailey
28 February 2014
Silent protest against stop and frisk

A New York protest against the police profiling known as 'stop and frisk'. Credit: Demotix.

During the 1990s, the United States experienced a startling rash of school shootings. What did they have in common? Each was perpetrated by a young, white male.

While many rushed to point to the shooters as lone, pathological killers, others began to dig into the larger cultural context and similarities of these events. In 2000, Harvard University sociologist Kathleen Newman and her colleagues posed the idea of “social room”, following an in-depth study of two of the major shootings, in which they interviewed over 200 people within the affected communities of Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Paducah, Kentucky.

Rather than being aberrant one-offs, Newman argued that the shooters' rage was a response to the society-wide problem of hypermasculine cultures: where masculinity is associated with aggression and the physique of the US football player.

In reality, she said, the problem is the narrow, almost suffocating way in which masculinity is defined and performed. The shootings had each been foregrounded by aggression and bullying towards the shooters, who did not exhibit accepted forms of masculine expression. In effect, the bullying towards the shooters was not only accepted but expected: it provided a tool for policing expressions of masculinity, and to keep a certain kind of alpha masculinity at the top of the social system. 

Against this background, social room means opening up cultural spaces for a broader range of acceptable gender expressions – in this case, what it means to be a man. With more social room in all our institutions, a young man who doesn’t conform to narrow ideals of masculinity would not be bullied into submission or violent retaliation.

I believe that creating greater social room for the expression of gender, as well as other elements of our identities, can be a transformational social technique. Let me provide an example. 

In a small, rural high school in Nova Scotia in 2007, a 14 year old boy was bullied on the first day of school for wearing a pink polo shirt. Seeing this, two 18 year olds, David Shepherd and Travis Price, recognized the need to create more social room in their school. 

Shepherd and Price bought 50 pink shirts at a local discount store, and then used social media and email to encourage students to wear pink to school the next day. Over 100 students agreed, and others put on more pink shirts once they saw the ‘sea of pink’ that was growing. The gesture points in the direction of freedom of expression across the school, helping to challenge a social power structure and widening the space for different identities to be expressed safely.

In creating their sea of pink, a group of high school teens had made more social room. Their simple act caught fire and a 'Day of Pink' has since been declared as an anti-bullying day in many schools across Canada. 

What would it mean to make more social room as a way to deal with systemic bullies?

To answer this question, I'm interested in exporting the idea of social room to the scale of a city or a nation. When you scale out, the bullies are no longer just high-school jocks. They are the police force, government officials and corporate actors. The victims are entire communities, and in some cases all of us (the NSA anyone?)

Like offering pink shirts to all school students, solidarity in these wider situations has to be made real. So, for example, the social room technique could offer the police, government and corporations the opportunity to step into another relationship to the problem. In that sense social room can be transformative. But for that to happen, the application of these tactics will have to be more intense and sustained than in the sea of pink.

Creating social room on a larger scale means creating avenues for onlookers to express their solidarity with marginal communities, who are on the front lines of systemic attacks from institutional bullies. The making of social room doesn't guarantee that onlookers would side with victims, but I believe it would facilitate it. And it could enable dissenters within institutions to speak up, potentially changing the institutional culture. 

In New York City, for example, social room could mean wealthy, white, upper west side residents expressing visible solidarity with young men of color who are victimized by the widespread police practice of 'stop and frisk'. It would also give room for police to step up who are against this practice themselves. 

The concept of social room assumes that some internal conflict exists inside the bully – and more broadly within institutions like the police. But by making it easier to identify the different elements of our identity and the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, these actions would also help us to recognize the same differences and vulnerabilities in others, and to work from that foundation in finding common ground. 

For example, shortly after being elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela loudly pronounced, and wore, his support for the South African national rugby team, the Springboks. The Springboks had long been the symbol of white apartheid, and Mandela had rooted against his jailers' favourite team throughout his 27 years in prison. But he realized that the opportunity for South Africa to hold the 1995 men's rugby world cup could 'flip' the symbolic meaning of the Springboks and create the space for South Africa to rally around their home team. In doing so, he created social room for a divided country to come together, perhaps just long enough to nudge people on a trajectory that led towards building a new nation.

Another powerful example is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was started by Cleve Jones in 1987 to memorialize the many victims of AIDS in the USA. Without directly addressing the homophobic approaches that some individuals and the US government had taken to address HIV and AIDS, the AIDS Quilt offered all friends, lovers and family members of AIDS victims the social room to mourn and celebrate those who had lost their lives to the disease. Now with over 48,000 panels, the AIDS Memorial quilt is not just a testament to the many lives that have been lost; it also celebrates the many panel-creators who have helped to shift how people with AIDS are seen, and to change government responses to the epidemic in the process.

 Both these examples drew on meaningful national symbols to create solidarity across deep divides: a country’s passion for sports or its history with family quilting. These actions didn’t solve the underlying problems of racism or homophobia in either case, but they did create more spaces – more social room - in which people engaged with each other, and, to an extent, were transformed as a consequence.

Social room is an optimistic methodology, and while it’s not all that we need, it's certainly worth testing as a way of opening up new dialogues and creating the space for new solutions.

Before a spontaneous run on a discount store’s pink t-shirts, the bullied and the bullies could never imagine a ‘sea of pink'. Now it’s up to us to imagine a much bigger sea of change.

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