Koalas, Violence, and Gender Socialization, Oh My!

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My partner and I recently visited the San Diego Zoo and had an amazing time.  When we were there the Koalas were awake and moving around and if you know that they sleep for almost 20 hours a day, it is rare to see them in action.  While we were watching them, one of the tour buses drove by and stopped at the exhibit.  The woman giving the tour saw the two Koalas in the picture above and said that they were fighting.  She then said, “Boys will be boys.”   The use of this simple phrase has everyone on the bus and within hearing range of the tour guide become socialized in the idea that boys are violent and that this violence is natural.

In this brief exchange, we see a moment of socialization.  When we are socialized into our culture’s norms or beliefs, it is not always large sweeping behaviors or statements that get us.  It is these brief instances when we may not even realize it but we are learning some “truth” about ourselves, the world, or others.  The tour guide probably did not even think about this phrasing or the implications of the statement and her statement alone will not transform someone.  However, this statement when combined with so many other moments of socialization do combine to form in our thoughts what we think of as true perceptions of the world.  These thoughts can then guide how we behave.

Why is recognizing these types of socialization moments important? Dr. Christopher Strain in his wonderful book, Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life, examined in one chapter how the idea of masculinity in America drives, in part, growing acts of violence by men.  He stated, “Certainly, the construction of masculinity offers keys to understanding male-patterned behavior, particularly violent behavior” (2010, p. 24).  How Americans perceived masculinity has not always been the same.  It is a socially constructed concept as Strain explained, “In the closing years of the nineteenth century, for example, ambition and combativeness became virtues for American men in a new way; competitiveness and aggression were exalted as ends in themselves.  Toughness was admired and tenderness scorned” (p. 23).

Our thoughts and the ways in which we promote our ideas about the world have real life impacts.  These thoughts and ideas determine how we interact with others and the world at large.  We learn who were are through these kinds of moments.  In this case, children in the area learned that boys are violent, which by implication, means girls are not.  Adults in the area may have just had their ideas about men and women confirmed.  They can now say, “If Koala males are violent, and males in other animals are violent, then it makes sense that human males are violent.  This means that men are violent by nature and they cannot help themselves because violence is practically an instinct for them.”  The idea that we socialize men to be violent is not even considered any more.  Violence has suddenly become natural and peace is unnatural.

Was the tour guide’s statement earth shattering.  No.  Did it transform someone right there on the spot to thinking a certain way.  No.  However, I would say it is one more notch in the tree of learning that impacts how we think.  We may not even consciously be aware of how this statement enters our minds and impacts our thinking.

If I consider this from a leadership or higher education perspective, I think there are questions we want to consider.  What are the socialization moments we engage in when we interact with others?  What are people learning in our organizations?  What are the moments in our lives that have impacted us – our thoughts, perceptions, and actions?  How do we become more than our socialized behaviors and how do we encourage others to go beyond their socially constructed perceptions?  What are some of the moments of socialization that we encounter every day that create barriers around our understanding of the world around us?

One thing I am fairly certain of is that the tour guide was probably not going to discuss the lesbian Koala orgies that have been studied and accidentally socialize us on this issue.

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2 thoughts on “Koalas, Violence, and Gender Socialization, Oh My!

    • Yes, it is amazing how often things are discussed in gender terms over things that are not in any way gendered. Unfortunately, these sayings and expressions often, but not always, belittle the feminine.

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