Culture Change: What Why How?

What is culture?

Culture is the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of a society. It’s lifestyles, value systems, beliefs, and practices. It’s the narrative we’re immersed in every day. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s our stories, our humor, our collective experiences, and understanding of our world. And none of us inhabits just one culture: you might swim in a tasty soup of your religious culture, your urban/suburban/culture, your school or workplace culture, your country’s culture, and the culture(s) of your hobbies and interests: cooking, cricket, Comic Con.

But culture is not static. We don’t just passively consume it. We create it. So we also have the power to change it. Culture drives the way we treat each other: what’s “normal,” what’s acceptable. And sometimes we need to change that. And when we do, we can build homes, families, communities, and institutions where dignity, equality, and justice—the core values of human rights—carry the day. We can begin in our own spheres. That’s why, and how, human rights start with you.

So what is culture change?

Culture change is the process of consuming and creating cultural products—from multimedia memes to Twitter hashtags to TV shows to new forms of dance to accepted standards of behavior—that challenge existing societal norms. Culture is always changing; once we’re aware of that, we can take action to change it intentionally, in positive ways. We can choose to support shows with three-dimensional women leads. We can choose not to share a sexist photo or video. We can make sure to treat our children equally and equitably, regardless of gender. Through personal accountability and everyday actions, we can help make discrimination and violence (including micro-violence, such as abusive language or street harassment) the outliers, the exceptions, that which is just not done.

Why does it matter?

Why change culture? Aren’t laws and policies promoting safety and equality enough? Well, no. Laws and policies are critical—and, as with marriage equality, can be indicators of culture change—but culture change is what hooks our hearts and minds. We might understand something is wrong when it’s illegal, but we believe it’s wrong when our culture doesn’t support it.

It’s not just a response. Culture change happens before the domestic violence incident, before the sexual harassment, before the sexist comment. Direct services are critical for survivors, but culture change aims to eradicate the need for direct service. It’s more than just incidental prevention. It’s more than a one-off training. It’s a deep shift in gender norms and cultural belief systems.

Culture change complements laws and policies. Sometimes laws and policies can lead the way, but more often, even the soundest ones won’t drive much sustainable attitude and norm change without cultural muscle enforcing them. Culture change transcends the politics of the moment and sets the standard of dignity, equality, and respect.

Culture change means proactively building the world we want to live in. Through culture change, we can all find a way to contribute to building a healthier world. We aren’t just looking for crises to respond to; we’re constantly bringing into being the world we want to live in.

So what can I do?

  1. Reflect. One of the most important ways to transform culture is by transforming it in yourself. Honestly reflect on your biases, the words you use, and the culture you engage with and perpetuate. Find ways that you can take actions, grand or small, to make human rights start with you.
  2. Talk to friends. Notice your friends say or do inappropriate things? Don’t be afraid to speak up. When one person says something, it gives room to others to speak up as well, and sets the standard that creates culture change.
  3. Be choosy—and talky—about media. Publicly support cultural products—TV, YouTube videos, articles—that challenge rigid gender or racial norms, portray violence with thoughtfulness and complexity, showcase talents beyond or outside the Hollywood establishment, and so on.
  4. Learn about the issues. Read articles, check out blogs, follow new people on social media. Engage with the issues and people who work on them.
  5. Let us know. Did you have a culture change moment today? Tell us about it. Tweet your culture change moment to Breakthrough @breakthrough.

Culture change for human rights starts with you!