The lagging measures of social awareness

Posted 6/26/20

Anyone with an abiding interest in human behavior — and more specifically, the nature that drives behavior — surely understands the notion of what specialists in those related fields call …

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The lagging measures of social awareness

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Anyone with an abiding interest in human behavior — and more specifically, the nature that drives behavior — surely understands the notion of what specialists in those related fields call “lagging measures.”

When seen in a cultural context, a lagging measure is the simple expression of the fact that significant changes we observe in a society lag behind — or follow after a span of time — a preceding change in mindset.

In diverse Chatham County, there are plenty of mindsets to consider. One manifested itself a couple of weeks ago when a peaceful group gathered in Siler City, and then a different group gathered in Pittsboro a day later, in explicit expressions of racial unity.

A different mindset was manifested in a demonstration of differences and disagreement in Pittsboro last Thursday. The fracas that accompanied that clash between Confederate flag-wavers and their opposites resulted in, among other nastiness, profanity-laden tirades, threats, injury and an arrest warrant.

What made one of those events different from the other?

It could be the fact that one event focused on change — this is an example of lagging measures brought forward — while the other was focused against it. It’s the difference in working toward something versus working against something.

As we’ve seen in the wake of COVID-19 and the George Floyd killing in Minnesota, the “lag” in lagging measures can sometimes be significantly abbreviated. In other words, changes (in procedure, in practice, in regulations, in beliefs, in relationships) can indeed come fast. COVID-19 has proven that. But when conflict remains unresolved (To mask up or not? To re-open or stay closed? To tear down historical monuments or not? To rename buildings or not?) there are usually missing pieces to our collective understanding.

That creates the “lag.”

Writer and social observer Seth Godin reminded us of this last week when he told the story of the publishing of the periodic table of elements some 150 years ago. Remember that from high school? Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, etc. — all the chemical elements, arranged by atomic number?

When Dmitri Mendeleyev created the periodic table in 1869, he was keenly aware that not all elements in existence had been discovered. He therefore left the appropriate empty squares on the periodic table blank. He wasn’t sure what needed to go there, but generations of other scientists knew, Godin writes, “to go looking for what needed to fill in that empty slot.”

Like the fish who isn’t aware he’s in water, lack of awareness — in other words, not knowing there are empty slots, or gaps, in our collective thinking that need filled through discovery — creates the kind of chaotic behavior that resulted in the pandemonium around the square at the historic Chatham County Courthouse last week. It results, too, we’ve witnessed, in a purposeless standoff over symbolism, over whether to wear face coverings in a pandemic, over whether to argue against the existence of systemic racism, or over how prejudgments about a fellow citizen should carry any weight.

Behaviors we’ve seen these last few weeks suggest proof of lagging measures. They also suggest how counterproductive it is to ignore the gaps in thinking, those empty slots in our nature, that lead to the kind of chaos we saw in Pittsboro last week.

Thinking about how we think about things is the best way to close the gap on lagging measures.


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