In turn, the prevalence of social structures that institutionalize selfishness, greed, competition, and aggression have ‘naturalized’ them to such a degree that alternative proposals based on other concepts of human nature are rejected outright without further analysis.
This ‘naturalization’ of our sociocultural environment is a normal part of our upbringing. From birth, infants perceive not only the prevailing mental models in their sociocultural surroundings, but also countless tangible examples of how those mental models are put into practice. As they grow, children learn theories that support those mental models, see them modeled in common practices and honored institutions, and are continually exposed to representations of them through the arts and mass media. These messages repeatedly assert and confirm a particular way of perceiving the world and acting within it, until people come to believe that it is not just ONE way, but the ONLY way to think and act. Furthermore, they become convinced that this IS the world, not just one representation of it, but reality itself.
In this way, we interiorize these social configurations to the point that they seem natural to us, a matter of ‘common sense’, inevitable and, therefore, impossible to change. Nevertheless, a culture in which greed and conflict prevail suffers from a kind of spiritual disease, which can be treated through the reeducation of its members and the restructuring of its institutions.
The first step in transforming a culture of conflict is the ‘de-naturalization’ of structures that institutionalize greed and conflict. In the past, the denaturalization of institutions such as slavery and male chauvinism led to the understanding that they were not natural, inevitable features of society, but ‘cultural constructs’. This made it possible to promote a culture in which persons of color and the feminine sex had the same rights and prerogatives as white males.
Perhaps a little story will help to illustrate this point. Once upon a time, there was a village where all of the inhabitants had a disease that caused spots on their skin. Since they all had the same illness, they thought that it was a natural characteristic of all human beings. One day a physician came to the village. He did not have any spots, so the villagers viewed him as abnormal. He told them that they had a disease for which there was treatment. The villagers did not believe him, saying “Isn’t it normal to have these spots? But then the physician cured one of them and the spots went away. When they realized that they were ill, they accepted the treatment and were cured.
Likewise, today’s world is suffering from what Erich Fromm called the “pathology of normalcy.” In order to denaturalize these dysfunctional cultural practices, first they must be examined carefully in order to dissociate ourselves from them. We need to realize that we have learned certain practices, but that there is a range of alternative ways to act in a given situation, many of which are practiced by other cultures. Only when we attain a level of objectivity that enables us to see certain social configurations as contingent and changeable, can we say that they have been denaturalized in our minds.
Then we will be open to studying and testing alternative practices. We will know that our society is a product of our collective actions, which in turn are a direct consequence of our assumptions and beliefs. We will realize that the world has not always been the way it is today, and that in the past one hundred years it has changed more than throughout the rest of human history. We will understand that even within the most divided, conflictive, egocentric cultures, there are numerous cases proving that human beings are also capable of mutualism and cooperation.
When we reach that stage, if someone were to say “The world is the way it is because it follows the natural order of the universe, and you cannot change it”, we will be able to answer, “The world is the way it is because we have made it that way, and we can change it if we really want to.”