Social Pressure: Churches and Gangs


2015-06-11 – It seems that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is being tagged with advice from his own book.

Back in 1995 he wrote a chapter called “The Restoration of Shame” in his book Profiles in Character. He suggested that unwed welfare mother could use a good dose of shaming to prevent pregnancies “out of wedlock.” (Research since 1995 has suggested that shaming is not an effective contraceptive, but that’s an issue for another time.)

This grabbed my attention, not because it affords an opportunity to ridicule Jeb Bush. I actually think that the idea of informally shaping people’s behavior—whether through encouragement or shaming—is worthy of study. Most of our behavior is shaped through unconscious influences. Wouldn’t it make sense to investigate these influences in hopes of getting them to work better?

As with most of what I write on this blog, I don’t have a research department or grad students to go out and do experiments. I do experiments in my head. So I asked myself: Self, how is your behavior shaped by the influences of your community. As I always do, when I ask myself a question, I answered:

What community?

When I was a kid, I had a little bit of a community. I had a neighborhood. I played with the kids in the neighborhood. I went to school with them. Their parents knew me. My parents knew them.

I actually had two communities. I also had a synagogue community. I had the same reciprocal play and school relationships, like I had in my neighborhood, but centered on my synagogue. The kids were mostly, but not entirely different.  We might have influenced each other.

But that all started to break down in the late sixties when I went away to college. Part of it was going away from home. But part of it was that society started to change. Communities are now more fragmented. I’m not sure there is the kind of community, anymore, that can exert conscious and concerted influence to do good. If there is, you’re free to break the bonds with such a nosy community.

And I live in the white middle class world! We can supposedly afford to have community—but we don’t, much.

There are exceptions, of course.

Some churches and synagogues and mosques continue to be tight communities (subject to people moving from neighborhood to neighborhood and from city to city). These religious institution still hold some power to exert social pressure.

The funny thing is that churches often are stronger in poor areas. You’d think they would be more effective at guiding young people to the virtuous life that Jeb Bush thinks young people can be shamed into.

And then there are gangs. They use social pressure and shaming, too.

Churches and gangs.

My guess is that folks like Jeb Bush have a very weird and scary picture of what poor and minority communities are like. We probably all do, if we don’t live there. The media does nothing but perpetuate the story of dysfunctional non-families.

My guess is that little of this is true.

* * *

Check out a contrary story that appeared in Tuesday’s Chicago Sun-Times, called “Michelle Obama tells ‘real story of the South Side,’ honors Hadiya Pendleton at graduation.”

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