When we discuss social change, it’s with a mind towards improving life for everyone, granting rights to the disenfranchised, and helping those that need it most. However, we must be cautious in this interpretation of social change, as not all social changes are good, and some can have enormous, far-reaching effects. To illustrate this example, let’s take a look at one of the biggest cultural difference markers in the United States right now: Views on the Civil War. The Civil War was unlike any other in American history, as both sides were part of the same country; as such, the victors of the war coexist alongside the losers, and on top of that, America is distinctly divided into states (and therefore sub-groups) with varying cultures and laws, allowing people to associate more heavily with their state than the country as a whole. As such, when the Civil War ended, it isn’t surprising that both sides would have different views on why it happened — what is surprising is the narrative that eventually won as the Civil War slipped further back into the annals of history. It wasn’t the narrative of the victors — however accurate or inaccurate you might think the North’s “side of the story is,” isn’t it bizarre that it’s the pro-South story that we constantly see parroted around today? This was accomplished through social change.
Lowndes (2017) did an excellent video on this subject, but I’ll summarize it briefly. The Daughters of the Confederacy were a group formed after the Civil War with the express intention of “not losing Southern culture” and to ensure that the “narrative of the North” that the South fought for the right to own slaves and was anything but noble would not become the dominant one. The Daughters of the Confederacy were extremely particular about how they went about this change — being that this was the late 1800s to very early 1900s when they were most active, they accomplished this not through political moves or votes, but simply by manipulation of their surrounding culture and younger generations. Many statues of Civil War generals or heroes are found in the South and can be found with a placard stating that they were funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy; some Southern history books detail slavery as “not that bad” for the slaves such as going over all the nice and lovely things that a slave-owner might do for their slaves (Lowndes, 2017). By targeting the surrounding cultural context of the Civil War, as Lowndes said, the Daughters of the Confederacy made it “personal” for people born long after the war ended, and they had a personal stake in ensuring this misrepresentation of history persisted in the face of actual facts. And we can see the fruits of their efforts today: The rallying cry that the Civil War had nothing to do with slaves, but was about “states rights” alone, and arguments about Civil War-era statues are extraordinarily volatile and focused on how removing them “erases history and heritage” for the South.
Though social psychology was not, of course, on the minds of the Daughters of the Confederacy in those exact terms, they clearly knew what they were doing, and everything they did was very specific and deliberate. Their primary strategy was popular education, defined by Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012) as “educating and disseminating information to community members”. A child has no concept early on of what a war is or isn’t about, and they can easily be told that it was this way. By the time they experience conflicting information, they already believe they have the truth and will rebuke “fake evidence”. This would have especially been the case when the Daughters of the Confederacy were most active, in days when libraries’ contents could be more easily controlled and getting news or information from across the country was nigh impossible. In pushing the “noble South” narrative, the Daughters of the Confederacy rewrote history and consequently changed the South’s culture, resulting in over a hundred years later, the Confederate flag is bandied around by citizens of non-South states and claimed to be about “States’ rights”. When we also fight for social change, we should be wary of lasting cultural impacts and that we fight for the right thing. For all we know, those successes could echo out for decades to come.
Lowndes, C. (2017). How southern socialites rewrote civil war history. Vox, retrieved from https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/10/25/16545362/southern-socialites-civil-war-history.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.