In the movie Norma Rae, a small town girl is heavily shaped by the cultural forces around her. Her life concerns are conventional. She meets an unusual man. He is a union organizer. Unlike all the other men in her life, he refuses to see her as a sexual object. Instead he sees more potential in her than she sees in herself.
He invites her to pursue a higher purpose. This means engaging in courageous behaviors and, at one point, she has to put everything on the line. In the process of losing her job, she chooses to stand on a table and hold a sign that says UNION. The unusual leadership act moves the workforce and a transformation occurs. In the process she accomplishes more than she believed possible and she becomes a new, empowered person.
Afterwards her unsettled husband says, “I liked the old Norma Rae.” The union organizer responds, “She stood on the table and now she is free, you may be able to live with that or you may not.” What did he mean? In what way had she become free?
I once read a book that suggested that the two most powerful determinants of human behavior are genetic programing and cultural programing. We are born with a genetic map that determines much of how we will behave. Then, from the time we are born, we are continually programed by the culture. That is, we are constantly shaped by collective expectations. We do what we are genetically and culturally programed to do. In the process we become what the author calls “mind slaves.”
There is an alternative. We, like Norma, can become free. We do this by embracing a higher purpose, by orienting to the common good. As we choose to pursue a higher purpose it requires us to move outside cultural expectations and we encounter resistance. If we are resilient and persist, we become increasingly conscious of how the culture works, of our own deepest desires and capabilities, of the potential in others that they do not see in themselves, and of how to move forward in the pursuit of purpose. In becoming conscious of how the conventional culture shapes us, we acquire the capacity to shape the culture. In learning to be a culture shaper we gain a very rare capacity.
To what extent are the people around me “mind slaves?”
Who are the exceptions who shape the culture?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive culture?