Understanding Social Conditioning

Atheists raised in a very religious setting may still recoil when they hear a blasphemy spoken, the reason for this is something called social conditioning, “a sociological process of training individuals in a society to act or respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society.”  Or to put it more bluntly – it’s brainwashing.

Factors such as family life, spirituality and religion, popular culture and entertainment, education and employment all contribute to each individual’s social conditioning. The deeper the psychological connection to our conditioning, the more intense the emotional reaction when our pre-programmed beliefs are challenged. The deepest beliefs are usually those dating back to our formative years. For most people their unique personal philosophy is whatever they were socially conditioned to have as children.

The Nineteenth Century Scottish travel writer David Macrae observed among American children that the most common expression he heard was “wanna trade”?  Whereas today we emphasise the need to share as a moral imperative. “Sharing is caring”.

The children of Nineteenth Century America were instilled with the values of traders. This includes the concepts of the “fair deal”, the “good trade”, and above all property rights. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. Children at the turn of the last century were generally socially conditioned towards socialist values such as: the value of sharing, the use of force to promote sharing, the immorality of those who refuse to share, and that property rights are relative rather than absolute.

Here is another example of social conditioning.  In 1993, I worked in a copy store in Portland, Oregon. One day a teacher came in to have colour photocopies done of the pictures created by her students for Earth Day. The theme was “What can we do to save the planet”. Sounds innocent enough until you consider that now, twenty years later, experts still debate whether or not the Earth needs saving, and yet twenty years ago it was presented to children as a self-evident fact.  Today, those children are in their thirties and may or may not have ever self-challenged the social conditioning of their youth.

An individual’s social conditioning is usually made evident in how they judge a particular situation. For example, the government is proposing 20% tax on fast-food bakery items like sausage rolls, steak pasties, and meat pies.  At first glance one might see this as another government attempt at social engineering through taxation. However, the tack taken by Gregg’s CEO Ken McMeikan was that since working-class people are the primary consumers of the product, this is an attack on the working-class. Cornish Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Gilbert said,

“It is simply wrong for the government to impose a tax on the humble Cornish pasty while luxurious caviar remains tax free.”

From the socially conditioned perspective of these men where others see a controlling government they see a Marxist class struggle. They are not against the concept of government tax and control, just not tax and control that affects them or their sensibilities. This may seem hypocritical to someone who does not share this social conditioning, but to them it all makes sense because this is how they were taught to perceive the world.

I recently received all sorts of political material from parties competing in the upcoming local elections in Scotland and I noticed a theme emerging. The question is which party is best qualified to manage society and the economy. Like applicants for a job, the candidates or parties outline all that they have accomplished and all that they promise to do.

The underlying message here is that government’s purpose is to manage your life and is judged by how well it makes everyone’s life better by reducing crime, improving health care, teaching students, creating jobs, and funding economic growth. This is the narrative that people have been socially conditioned to accept without question and as libertarians this is the narrative we are challenging. We are challenging the unspoken and accepted premise that this is government’s purpose.

It is easy to forget the differences between political philosophy and the Realpolitik that emerges from it. Politics, like religion, is a philosophical position and we are in the business of winning converts. This means challenging the accepted view while at the same time not alienating potential converts. It also means appreciating that from their perspective our philosophy runs so counter to their social conditioning that we might as well be saying that the Earth is flat.

I recently had a conversation with someone in which I put forward a phrase that libertarians take for granted, “Tax is theft”. I probably should not presume his thought process, yet it seemed as if he recognised theft as bad but had been socially conditioned to see taxation as good. He saw taxation as the means by which governments acquire revenue to pay for services deemed beneficial to society. I guess this is what was going on in his head because he argued why tax is good rather than addressing my point that tax is theft. According to his worldview, how can something that produces good like taxation be the result of something bad like theft?

This is what libertarians must be mindful of when seeking to win hearts and minds to the libertarian philosophy. It seems simple, say that people do not see the world the same way, but this important point is easy to forget when we are immersed in our own worldview.

Likewise, what we have to say is often counter-intuitive or runs contrary to what most people had been taught in school to believe. For example, libertarians would say that the Federal Reserve in America caused the Great Depression and that the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt extended the crisis by up to fifteen plus years. This is not what I was taught in school. I was taught that over-speculation in the stock market caused the depression and that Roosevelt’s programs were the cure. Needless to say I do not believe this anymore.

Letting go of the familiar beliefs of our social conditioning and embracing others means accepting a new central paradigm, an alternative narrative to the mainstream. When we do this our fundamental worldview changes and we find ourselves swimming against the current of popular belief.

This is called alienation, the process of becoming an alien or outsider.  One of the great benefits of the internet has been bringing these alienated people together throughout the world which has given rise to the global libertarian movement. The downside is that we forget that other people cannot see the world we see.

Understanding social conditioning is a vital part of spreading the libertarian philosophy. Most people do not challenge their social conditioning and they often take offense when someone else does. They will call you crazy, stupid, foolish, and vigorously defend their assumptions about the nature of reality even if it is an undefendable position. They may choose to completely misunderstand your position and then go on to misrepresent it.

In the early days of Christianity, the Romans thought the Christians were incestuous cannibals because they called each other brother and sister and ate someone’s body and drank his blood, yet despite this misunderstanding and misrepresentation Christianity spread and flourished in the face of active persecution.  This was because they were selling a philosophy in the marketplace of ideas that people wanted to buy. The old pagan system was failing and the Christians offered something fresh and new.

A similar situation exists today. People have been socially conditioned to see government as the manager of society and the economy, but most people have lost faith in these gods. Decades of empty promises have born no fruit and the political leaflets fall through the letterbox only to be cast into the bin. Throughout the world politicians are perceived as corrupt ruling elites rather than as representatives of the people. We have collectively lost faith.

As libertarians we are not simply offering a new way of doing politics. We are preaching a new philosophy – a new faith. We say “do not believe in governments, believe in yourself.” We preach self-empowerment over state-control and self-reliance over forced mutual dependency. We are saying that you are an adult and need no longer be treated as a child at best or a slave at worst. We are saying that your life is yours.

One has to wonder that such an elementary message once taken for granted has to be sold to the public. That is the power of nearly a century of social conditioning, the result of decades of teaching children to be dependent on the state with subtle messages like “sharing is caring”.  The task before us is to un-do what has been done and set the world right again by winning this battle for hearts and minds.


Daniel Logan-Scott
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Is a writer from Los Angeles, California and has been living in Glasgow, Scotland for the past fifteen years. His written works focus on the Cultural Philosophy and History of the Romantic Era (1776-1929).

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