Socialization: Can it Advance or Inhibit Inclusion?

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 1, 2007


When we look back on Liberian history, it is easy to see how people were socialized to accentuate socioeconomic differences and enact hatred in their daily lives. A primary measure of whether or not we have abandoned such practices is, if we are making marked improvements in the ways we socialize our children – instilling a vision for inclusiveness and motivating them to invite and embrace difference. To accomplish this, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, other responsible adults, even institutions must work with youth and some adults to uncover and interrupt the ways that we are replicating hatred. We must take purposeful actions to talk about difference in ways that children perceive them not as weaknesses, but as strengths and virtues that unify rather than divide.

Because the barriers to repairing harm caused by saturation in ethnic hatred stem from socialization, beliefs and assumptions that put others down rather than lift them up; predators exploit these loopholes to buttress and reinforce division for personal gain. We should create a counter culture that permeates all aspects of daily life with values and beliefs that engender tolerance and inclusiveness. This is how we will stop divisive tendencies from seeping into our daily lives. This is how we will prevent hatred from becoming habitual in the lives of our children and the larger society.

Problem solving to close the gaps between people aroused by socialization that devalues others or differences arising from ethnic conflict is a developmental process. I believe that this kind of maturation might not be exclusively cognitive, but even more so, a social phenomenon. Bridging differences is predicated upon how the initial stages of interaction across boundaries (parochial or otherwise) are approached and resolved. I have come to call this social maturation process a transition from enmity to embrace. Making this transition means that we start with “symbolic gestures” of a willingness to occupy the same space with those we have come to hate or despise; even consider as enemies or threats.

Through my mediation practice within schools and organizations, I have noticed that the first issue that needs to be resolved should be relevant and important to the conflicting sides. Second, the process of resolving the difference should be meaningful and fair in the eyes of all participants. Third, the solution that emerges should be a natural outgrowth of the participants’ lived experience. Why are these steps important?

Culture or history provides the mental picture that informs how human beings think about difference. Socialization is the foundation for one’s ability to think about the other person as friend or foe. Socialization, in this context does not imply that people should curb “educational exposure” to themes, materials, and textbooks that are intentionally hateful. It is a delicate matter to balance “educational exposure” and indoctrination. But that is what we do in real life everyday. People absorb materials and experiences that are hate-filled, but they walk away from those experiences. And when they do so, oftentimes, they work hard to prevent reoccurrence. I am not naive to forget that some people walk from these experiences with bad memories. Some tend to use the bad memories to further the hostility and antagonism and this vulnerability is often used by ill-intentioned people to further their cause.

True, it matters most what the “context, purpose, and intent” of exposure to the material or experience that is hate-filled. Educational goals and non-spiteful intent can make teaching about hatred acceptable. By and large, we cannot prevent ourselves, our children, and others from being exposed to bigotry just because the topic is offensive. A compelling characteristic of democracy is that opportunity abounds for multiplicity of views to be offered in the marketplace of ideas. Equally so, provisions reside in the constitutions within democratic nations for those who feel that their rights are being violated to seek legal recourse.

To harbor prejudice is much a socialization process as it is experiential. Socialization and freeing oneself of prejudice are both developmental processes, although not in the cognitive sense, but much more socially. That is, they are based on the level of venom that goes into teaching a person to hate people who are not members of their favorite group of people (out-group). The higher the amount of venom we inject into interpersonal relationships, and the lesser the positive social interactions with an “out-group” member, the degree to which socially a person may be prone to hate the “out-group” member. If it occurs over a prolonged period, as has happened in the case of, for example, Manos/Gios, Mandingoes, and Krahns; Congoe-Country divide, in Liberia, it might get so ingrained that it consumes all aspects of people’s existence on all sides. Hatred gets embedded in all that they do and not isolated from their being.

This situation results in the form of disequilibrium or imbalance that we have observed among conflicting sides in Liberia or elsewhere. It can be resolved, if the social actors in these kinds of conflict rearrange and accommodate new information on the lived experiences of the other. Helping people in conflict, ethnic or otherwise to assimilate the new image of the out-group member into the larger cognitive/social map or schema of their thought process, and internalizing the new image to help refute previous distorted images is the work that new social technologies must accomplish in reconstructing Liberia.

Socialization and all that it involves is the foundation for making social change. Based on these discussions, it is reasonable to theorize that, if bigotry and hatred are products of socialization and less so experiential, it is socially-developmental. That is, it begins at low levels of venom, perhaps with stereotypes, condescension, discrimination, and then graduates to perpetrating outright physical harm. It then expands into genocide as the person is injected with more poisons about the out-group; if we make no attempt to break this vicious cycle. A person who is apt to grow in their exclusive and injurious tendencies imputes ulterior motive to every action that the out-group member takes.

The art of personal and collective reflective and/or reflexive rethinking is what each person or group should bring into the process of re-socialization or change making. The participant processes their socialization and lived experiences concurrently, coupled with cultural norms and values that were the contexts and contents of their socialization. These are then brought to the discussion as facilitated by a neutral broker, but one that has stake in the outcomes being a resolution of the existing difference.

The filter that is used here is a desire to achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation implies creating new interpretive lenses through which to perceive those previously considered enemies, now being engaged as collaborators in search for embrace. The even-tempered and sober interpersonal communications that result from the process helps people to move slowly from enmity to embrace. Some youth development scholars have named this as a process of developing “cognitive sophistication,” a process whereby people expand their worldview and perspectives of other people. It is rooted in the old Socratic traditions of questioning rhetorically to overcome bias and prejudice or increase understanding. Aligned with practice is the notion of “interpersonal forgiveness,” spiritual in some sense, but equally a secular ritual that intervenes where patterns of resentment and aggression are embedded in social life.

That being said, of all the areas that we need to make priority for social change in the new era, we must not neglect how we socialize our children to respond to difference. Socialization sits at the base of our strategies for dealing with difference. We can either infuse difference with hatred or we can embed it with the strengths and commonality that we enjoy, which has amounted to our resilience to confront enmity. Parents and adults should be asking themselves, if they see visible evidence in their households and families that they take treating difference with respect seriously. Socialization becomes inclusive when we do more than just talk about our ancestral roots and cultural histories. In homes and public places where inclusion is the norm, parents and adults work hard to interrupt, even eliminate any talk or practice that the merit of people’s actions are based on ethnic affiliation, social class, gender, race, disability, etc. A society that has a focus on socializing people to be inclusive looks for ways to base public policies on the mutual aspirations of all its citizens. Essentially, socialization has the power to accelerate our quest for democracy, if we build a new attitude toward those we consider members of our out-group.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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