The “Normalization” of Discrimination

This paper was originally written for a “Communicating Gender” class at Rowan University.

Despite all of the progress that has been made in gender equality and rights in America, there are still cases where people can be discriminated against based on their sex or sexuality.  Earlier this year, President Obama issued a statement about the effects of the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  According to an article in The Huffington Post (Tungol, 2012), President Obama said that repealing this law, “…upheld the fundamental American values of fairness and equality by finally and formally repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Gay and lesbian Americans now no longer need to hide who they love in order to serve the country they love.”  Yet these “American values of fairness and equality” aren’t being applied in other organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America.

According to an article by ABC News (James, 2012), a Boy Scout named Ryan Andresen has been denied the highest honor available in that organization, the Eagle Scout award, because he is gay.  This act of discrimination comes just a month after the one-year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  The discrimination against Andresen shows that the changes in federal government policy haven’t yet spread to non-government organizations like the Boy Scouts.  This is ironic when considering how closely the Boy Scouts, as an organization, parallel the principles and duties of the U.S. military.  Just like military officers, Boy Scouts wear uniforms, are awarded honors for their achievements, and advance through ranks as a sign of their progress.  Both organizations are also supposed to stand for certain ideals, but that, in fact, is part of the problem.

James’s article reported a quote from Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America.  In the quote, Smith says that, “Agreeing to do one’s ‘Duty to God’ is a part of the scout Oath and Law and a requirement of achieving the Eagle Scout rank.”  He was also quoted as saying that the “ideals and principles” of this oath are, “central to the mission of teaching young people to make better choices over their lifetimes.”

The issue with this philosophy is one that has been studied by scholars researching Symbolic Interactionism.  According to MacLean (2008), Symbolic Interactionism is often at work in organizations where immoral or illegal activities are occurring.  He said that, “deceptive sales practices were seen as normal, acceptable, routine operating procedure.”  While his study focused on the deceptive sales practices of Acme Insurance Company, the same concepts can be applied to other organizations.  When an organization, like the Boy Scouts, communicates about their policies in a way that makes them seem normal and accepted, it affects the way people perceive the behavior.  In particular, by stating that their principles are, “central to the mission of teaching young people to make better choices over their lifetimes,” they are defining their practices as not only “normal,” but as actually improving the quality of their members’ lives.  Thus the focus is taken off of the discriminatory nature of their policies, and it is instead framed as a supposedly positive, beneficial thing.

The question then arises of why this “Duty to God” can be seen as such a supposedly beneficial thing.  One possible answer is that people can judge themselves based on their perception of how God views them.  In a study done by Chatham-Carpenter (2006), the researchers found that God can act as the “Significant Other” in Symbolic Interactionism.  Just as people can change the view of their “looking glass self” based on how they believe others view them, they can also change this view based on how they believe they are viewed by God.  In the study, they found that women who believed God viewed them in a positive fashion (viewing them as “good Christians” rather than “sinners”) had the same changes in their outlook on life as women who believed their friends and family viewed them in a positive fashion.

This, then, can explain why an organization like the Boy Scouts would view their “Duty to God” as something that teaches young boys to make better decisions about their lives.  Since their perception of God’s will is that of a heteronormative view of the sort of life a young boy “should” lead, they will perceive that God has a positive perception of the Scouts only when they fit this view.  Anyone outside this binary view will be seen not just as a sinner in the eyes of people, but as a sinner in the eyes of God.  The Scouts then take on the role of the other, in this case God, and imagine how He views them and their organization.  This creates a reality for them in which they see anything outside their defined parameters as “wrong.”  Further, rather than understanding the discrimination that results as being immoral, the discrimination is instead normalized and, “perceived as acceptable, routine ways of doing business.” (MacLean, 2008).

Yet other studies have shown that this sort of behavior can have a significant effect on people’s self-esteem.  Lucas and Steimel (2009) studied the effects of discrimination against women in the “male-dominated” field of mining.  Similar to how the Boy Scouts hold this heteronormative view that only straight males are fit in their organization, Lucas and Steimel’s study shows how women are viewed as “unfit” for mining.  They said that the discriminated women, “reflect upon this composite looking glass self and respond by crafting identities that both distance themselves from and link themselves to the community-constructed gen(d)eralized other.”  Because the women miners were cast in such a negative light, there was a negative impact on their perceptions of themselves, which can often lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.  Applying a similar principle to the Boy Scouts’ views, if they feel that only straight males are able to “make better choices over their lifetimes,” this could have a negative impact on homosexual scouts who feel that they fail to fit this frame.  When a gay scout believes that his peers, or even God, perceive him as doomed to failure, it may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that will cause him to fail.  When considered from this angle, the Boy Scouts’ discrimination can be seen not only as immoral and a source of prejudice and hate, but also as having a negative impact in the development of boys’ self-esteem and overall development, which is the exact opposite of the Boy Scouts’ stated mission.  The reality of this effect can be seen in a statement Andresen made to ABC News about his experiences with discrimination, in which he said, “It was really embarrassing and humiliating, and I was terrified.” (Donaldson James, 2012)  When a person’s emotions have been so strongly affected by the words and actions of others, the impact cannot be more clear.

What can be done to correct these injustices is not clear.  In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled, “by a 5-to-4 vote that the Boy Scouts have a constitutional right to exclude gay members because opposition to homosexuality is part of the organization’s ”expressive message.”” (Greenhouse, 2000).  Lacking any legal backing to make a change, Andresen’s mother has attempted to overrule the Boy Scouts’ decision by seeking media coverage and starting an online petition (Donaldson James, 2012).  However, it’s likely that more needs to be done than simply taking action over this incident.  Discrimination of this sort persists not simply because there is prejudice and hate in the world, but because that hate is being normalized by the way organizations talk about it.  When a group disguises discrimination behind their “ideals” and their “mission,” it makes it far too easy to convince people that this sort of thing is “normal.”  Just as MacLean’s study showed how this normalization of immoral practices can lead to wide-scale illegal activity within an organization, the normalization of discrimination is what allows it to continue to exist in an organization like the Boy Scouts.  Perhaps one day they’ll change their policies, and then they can truly help young boys to “make better choices” as they claim.  But this will happen only when these “better choices” are the ones that exclude discrimination and embrace equality across all genders and sexual orientations.

References:

1.         Donaldson James, S. (2012, Oct 5). Gay Boy Scout, Bullied by Troop, Denied Eagle Rank. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/boy-scout-bullied-denied-eagle-rank-gay/story?id=17401340#.UIg1D2ez6So

2.         Donaldson James, S. (2012, Oct 5). Gay Scout Denied Eagle Award Says He Believes in God. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/gay-boy-scout-denied-eagle-award-believes-god/story?id=17407747#.UIhHHmez6So

3.         Tungol, JR. (2012, Sept 5). ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ One-Year Repeal Anniversary: 25 Amazing Moments. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/20/dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-anniversary_n_1891519.html

4.         Chatham-Carpenter, A. (2006).  Internal Self-Esteem: God as Symbolic Interactionism’s “Significant Other”?  Journal of Communication and Religion, Vol 29 (No 1). 103-126

5.         Lucas, K. & Steimel, S. J. (2009).  Creating and Responding to the Gen(d)eralized Other: Women Miners’ Community-Constructed Identities.  Women’s Studies in Communication, Vol 32 (No 3).  320-347

6.         Maclean, T. L. (2008).  Framing and Organizational Misconduct: A Symbolic Interactionist Study.  Journal of Business Ethics (2008).  78:3-16

7.         Greenhouse, L. (2000, Jun 29). THE SUPREME COURT: THE NEW JERSEY CASE; Supreme Court Backs Boy Scouts In Ban of Gays From Membership. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/29/us/supreme-court-new-jersey-case-supreme-court-backs-boy-scouts-ban-gays-membership.html

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One thought on “The “Normalization” of Discrimination”

  1. UPDATE: According to a recent article from NBC News, the Boy Scouts of America have recently announced that they “may eliminate the exclusion of gays from membership at the national level, leaving the decision to its local units.” From my understanding of the article, this would not lead to a nation-wide policy allowing gays into the Boy Scouts. It would merely allow some scout troops, if they wish to, to allow gay scouts into their organization. Others would be allowed to continue banning gays from joining, based on the individual troop leaders’ decisions.

    Even if this policy change occurs (the article states that the decision will not be made until Wednesday, February 6th, 2013), it will not be a complete end to discrimination… though it would be a start.

    You can read the full details of the article here. The article is very detailed and written from a neutral perspective, offering the views of both sides and quoting people who are both for and against the inclusion of gays in the Boy Scouts.

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