I recently attended a conference about the latest findings regarding neuroscience in addiction and listened to the keynote speaker discuss the idea of “volition” theory versus “disease” theory in addiction. The argument in this field is whether people can “choose” their way out of addiction using their own free will or if addiction truly is a disease that needs to be treated through certain methods. Interesting stuff! A statement stuck with me, and it’s been running laps in my head as we step into Black History Month and reflect on the World Day of Social Justice (2/20/21, mark your calendars!). The speaker said something like, ‘the most demeaning thing you can do to someone is to take away their volition’. Things started to percolate…
I can only remember the word ‘volition’ being used consistently during NFL games when someone gets smashed in the head and the announcers rejoice that the guy can “walk off the field under his own volition”. Not very deep or philosophical there. But any quick word search gives short, resounding definitions: ‘the power of choosing or determining’, ‘the act of making a choice or decision’, ‘free will’. Pretty standard American value, I’d say. But when you think about the frame from the conference speaker, that taking someone’s volition can be the most demeaning thing you can do to them, the sentiment is powerful and explains how hyperpowers across world history have manipulated and dominated societies and, at a much smaller scale, how we can focus ourselves on making changes in our society.
As we think about volition, I think it’s important to recognize another social conversation flash-pointing right now; the difference between pluralism and multiculturalism. Got a dollar? See “E Pluribus Unum” on there? (ah, just Google it). It means in America we’re a pluralistic society and that is supposed to mean that we are many cultures with individual traditions and norms that choose to live under a common cultural value system. Each group complements and leans on one another to chip in and form our American dream. Multiculturalism is a little different in that by common understanding it’s a system where there are different cultures in one geographical area and they more or less function independently, with no (or very little) integration into common society.
Let’s keep that word, too. Integration. Not assimilation. Words matter.
I highlighted ‘choose’ in the previous paragraph because it helps me circle around to a point that I’m sure you’re ready for me to get to. So here goes: volition is at the root of our ability to create our ideal American society. Stepping into Black History Month, it’s important to think about the evolution of Black culture in American society with regard to volition. This culture was born into America with no volition. That didn’t change with the Emancipation Proclamation. The Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, redlining… these aren’t “just” rules used to separate cultures but to control the volition, the minds, of the targets. The psychological effects transcend generations. Then a country that was built on this culture’s free labor asks, rather tells, them to assimilate. Be a part of America now, if you don’t mind. Shit, you have no choice. We’ve moved through the decades since trying to navigate this forced, historically violent relationship which to this day has the political, social, legal…you name it…scales tipped. Even our religious institutions face a reckoning. How we got here is as important as where we go next collectively, and perhaps more importantly, individually.
As we move into Black History month and focus on Social Justice Day, B+K hopes to stress the importance of considering how we can respect everyone’s volition, integrate cultures into our lives without forcing assimilation to societal expectations, and be aware of policies and social norms that may slow our pluralistic process. We need to understand a culture’s history to be able to appreciate their current status, but simply starting a conversation with someone is a great way to learn about them. Take time to consider your own volition and the gift of free will; to choose to think about someone else’s perspective and lived experience to influence your behavior. Are we helping people integrate? Are we focused on lifting the collective society?
Choose the power of choice.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.