Recently I tagged an entry here as “painfully aware.” You might be wondering what the particular tag is referring to, or if you aren’t wondering, you might not realize it’s a reference to a very specific tagline that has to be one of the best, most true, most suitable taglines I’ve ever encountered. So let me tell you the story:
Long, long ago, in the 2008/2009 academic year (which really, I mean really, shouldn’t be as long ago as it is so can someone please do something about that? thanks!), I was back at school getting another degree. Unlike some people, my degree of this era was not in the most evil, horrible field ever—unless you ask Stephen Harper. That’s right: I was learning how to commit *gasp* sociology.
And while learning how to commit this most heinous of crimes, I joined up with the Sociology Students’ Association.1 And this group decided to print some club t-shirts. And on those t-shirts, they included the group’s logo and its glorious, glorious tagline, which as I’m sure you determined by now is this:
If you know anything about sociology, you can probably figure out what those two succinct words are getting at. If you are a sociologist—or, perhaps more accurately, you are someone with a sociological orientation or a sociological worldview—then you see that phrase and you recognize immediately how perfectly it sums up what I shall pretentiously label the “sociologists’ condition.” (it’s really not exactly the condition of sociologists; it’s more about the condition of having learned enough sociology that you just can’t turn off your sociologically-informed viewpoint)
You often hear writers or critics complain that they can’t properly sit back and enjoy writing or whatever art they are consuming as, let’s say, laypeople. Once you know a certain amount about a field or domain, you can’t help but look at it differently. For instance, when I watch TV or film or see theatre, a lot of times I will find myself thinking, “Good grief, this actor must be ecstatic over getting such good material!” That’s for a variety of reasons, stretching waaaaaaaay back to my childhood when my mum did community theatre. But basically, I know a lot2 about acting and TV and film production. So when I enjoy TV or film or theatre, it’s not, usually, because I’ve lost myself in the magic, or at least, it’s not because I’ve lost myself in the magic effortlessly. It takes a really powerful performance (like when I saw Wicked the first time in London) to simply overwhelm my critical faculties3 and keep me “in the moment” as an audience member. Either that or I have to essentially consciously make myself unconscious of all the extra stuff I’m observing and evaluating without even trying to.
When you are sufficiently immersed in sociology, you are pretty much constantly painfully aware. Aware of what? Aware of all the crazy institutional structures that are embedded in our everyday lives, aware of all the subtleties of the various forms of oppression present in society, aware of how various forms of oppression can interact with one another, aware of how difficult it is to effect change in the world on any kind of large scale, aware of how language is made and re-made to suit various agendas, aware of exactly how complex life and its problems can be, and how small we as individuals are. It can be terrifyingly paralyzing.
I think, though, that the fact Harper exhibited such an apparently irrational hatred of sociology in general, and sociologists in particular, is telling. Sociology is a way of looking at the world that pushes you to see holistically, to uncover complexity, and—maybe most importantly—to see the interconnectedness of all things. To me, it’s the antithesis of conservative thought, because I’ve never read or discovered one conservative position that isn’t, at its core, founded in the idea of selfishness. Maybe not individual selfishness, but certainly fairly limited group selfishness. Family selfishness, racial selfishness, economic selfishness, gender selfishness… find me a conservative idea that isn’t about benefitting a group of haves to the detriment of a group of have-nots and I’ll eat my toque.
This is not to say that all sociologists are “bleeding heart liberals.” Oh no, there are some marvellously delusional schools of thought in sociology, like structural functionalism and rational choice theory, that actually dovetail quite nicely with conservative ideologies. Indeed, perhaps they were promoted and gained attention within the field because of these “fortuitous” alignments. But the fundamental perspective of sociology considers how groups of people act and interact, and that perspective, as certain people say about the facts in general, has a “liberal bias.”
I think there’s an explicit reason sociology isn’t taught as its own discipline (generally) in high school and I think it’s because it encourages a worldview that is perhaps a bit too likely to cause people to challenge authority. This isn’t to say everyone who studies sociology becomes some kind of enlightened left-wing activist who magically eradicates all their prejudices… but if ever there were a field of study that puts all the right tools at people’s disposal to at least start breaking down their bigotry, to start questioning why things are the way they are in society, to start cutting through everything in society designed to distract us, to start making connections that—to borrow a very famous idea from a very famous sociologist4—perhaps the power elite don’t want the rank-and-file asking, then sociology must be it.
And somehow, all of the above, along with innumerable other multitudes, is all contained in two small words: painfully aware
So next time you see someone you know is studying, or has studied, sociology, offer them a hug—because buster, you better believe they need it!