Overcoming Cultural Inertia

As we look at what is going on around us in the world, especially in American politics, there is a single underlying problem that explains much of it.

This problem is best described as Cultural Inertia.

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, includes an excellent set of definitions for the term INERTIA that help us understand it specifically in the context we are addressing here.


In a 2011 study for the University of Texas at El Paso, Michael A. Zárate, Moira Shaw, Jorge A. Marquez, and David Biagas, Jr. explained that:

“Cultural inertia builds upon and integrates multiple closely related social psychological theories including the instrumental model of group conflict, acculturative fit, and system justification theory. Cultural inertia contributes to our understanding of prejudice by bringing together multiple related constructs and focusing on the processes between the endpoints of integration. The focus on the effects of perceived cultural change (the proposed causal concept) and when movement and change are desired versus resisted provided new directions in research. “

Their study, “Cultural inertia: The effects of cultural change on intergroup relations and the self-concept,” goes on to explain and explore those concepts at great length.   But only from the limited scope required by a focused study, and for our purposes here, we must pull back and widen the lens.

This concept of cultural inertia exists in our societal culture, our educational and institutional cultures, our governmental and law enforcement cultures, our business cultures, and even the cultures we cultivate and maintain with our family and friends.

Throughout the remainder of this piece we will discuss varying aspects of how pervasive this problem is in every aspect of our lives and yet escapes our notice as the reason those problems continue to exist year after year, generation after generation.    With each example, we will explore the best way to begin addressing those issues.   We will also look at how similar past attempts have succeeded or fallen short so we can learn from them as we strive for lasting progressive forward movement in our cultural.

By doing this, the hope is that we will become better able to spot the resistance to change created by cultural inertia and more adept at creating and implementing the means to overcome it.

To begin let’s look at a cultural norm that we have been largely successful on changing but are still seeing push back and anger on as we attempt to progress forward.


When our culture began to define the legal system of marriage, it borrowed the term itself and the definition from the predominant religious culture of the time.   As a result, instead of defining a civil union contract between adults legally old enough to enter such a contract, it became defined as “One man, one woman” being joined in “holy matrimony” despite the fact that other cultures had other definitions.

Compounded with this was the cultural acceptance within our nation at the same time these laws were originally written that people of color were not considered entirely human (3/5ths became the technical determination under the law).

This led to the cultural norm that interracial marriage between two people of different ethnicity could not legally be married in the eyes of the law.   It was a felony called miscegenation in many states at the time that persisted well in the 1960s and early 1970s, despite generations of fighting against it.


It was until June 12, 1967 when the United States Supreme Court ruled against the Commonwealth of Virginia and in favor of Richard and Mildred Loving that enough force was achieved to change the direction cultural inertia was holding us for so long.   Still, while the laws slowly began to change at that point, to this day we still have people that cannot let go of the old norms and not only cannot accept this type of marriage but must actively attempt to insult, demean, and dehumanize those that found partners of a different skin color.  Despite all the progress made, we are still battling against the last resistance of the old inertia attempting to pull us back onto the original path.

Now, nearly half a century later, we are attempting to widen the lens of marriage again to legal civil unions, still called marriage (because the cultural inertia on that one is still far too strong to break free of), for same sex partners.   Almost none of the arguments for or against have changed, only the terminology used by both sides to describe the groups of people involved has altered.   In 2015 and 2016 we made significant forward progress on this battle, but in late 2016 and 2017, the cultural inertia grabbed hold and yanked us back onto the old path again as evangelical conservatives regained the power positions of our government.

If we want to prevent backsliding, we must continue striving to maintain the force of change to break the inertia of long standing, but no longer acceptable norms.

To do so, the first step is recognizing that the primary reason those norms still exist is not that most people want to retain them, but that most people don’t even recognize that they’re there at all, because they are not personal affected by them.   Thus, they block their mind from being concerned about them, and go on about their lives.   They don’t want to commit the time, energy, or effort into the fight to change a problem that isn’t their problem.

That last part is worth repeating.

They don’t want to commit the time, energy, or effort into the fight to change a problem that isn’t their problem.

This explains why every single long standing, but outdated, cultural norm still exists.

Racism and Racial Bigotry

It explains why, in 1964 when the law was written and the majority of society decided that schools needed to be integrated, despite the cultural norms of segregation, so many people accepted the change in law, without then continuing to fight to change the culture.

After the law was changed, those that fought to maintain the cultural inertia worked to create housing policies that kept communities segregated by color, to redraw school districts so that desegregation wouldn’t be possible within the same district, to change city limits and incorporate smaller cities within larger ones to prevent their taxes from benefiting underprivileged schools, creating mass transit systems that did not properly serve the underprivileged communities, and so much more.    These policies still exist today, as we see from the JPMorgan racial discrimination settlement just this year.

Christine Drennon, Ph.D, Texas geographer and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, told 150 city and school district officials, teachers and non-profit leaders at Sam Houston High School that:

“Historically, we created a racially, ethnically, and economically differentiated landscape, and then we applied a set of standards to the entire thing, regardless of geography, and with that, it had a lot of unanticipated consequences.”
“We didn’t do this because people liked to live with people they looked like – you know, we hear that all the time. We did this with policy. This was the United States policy that produced this very differentiated landscape of who looks like what and how much money is going in there.”

At the same time, as school districts increasingly became independent, district funding became localized, sheltering wealthier, predominantly white districts from tax obligations to the county, while excluding poor, non-white districts from desperately needed revenues. While most U.S. cities have locally funded suburban districts, San Antonio districting is unusually fragmented, with 18 independent school districts represented within the city’s boundaries.

The result, Drennon said, is a deeply entrenched legacy of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation that continues to define the city. The effects are profound and far-reaching. Not only do the neediest schools have the smallest budgets, but the students they serve face an array of poverty-related issues and a dearth of community resources.

We know these norms exist.  There is evidence of them all around us.  But the people who are in a position to be able to change them are not usually personally affected by them, and if they are they actually benefit as a result.   There is no incentive for them to want to change them other than empathy and human decency.

Once again, they don’t want to commit the time, energy, or effort into the fight to change a problem that isn’t their problem.

The only way to break their own cultural inertia is to make them perceive it as their problem.

We must, sadly, divert the discussion away from how they should be helping others, and get them to focus on how those others will be better able to help them.   The more people we lift out of poverty the less need there is for crimes committed to obtain the money and/or items needed to survive.  The more educated people are, the more they contribute to the advancement of society through innovation and leadership, both in government and in business.   The more invested the community is in them, the more invested they become in the community.  And as the old phrase states, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”    The more successful the people in our population become, the more successful our society and economy will be become.

Consider that in 2015, at least five states still maintained symbols of the old Confederacy as part of their state flags.


There is no valid reason for the flag of a defeated army’s treasonous attempt at insurrection to overthrow the United States government to still be permitted to fly in any form in any official capacity in our nation.  However, due to the insistence of those in power to hang onto their racism and historical “heritage” so many who are unaffected by these things on a daily basis, but have the power to drive the change, can’t be bothered to force the directional change required to break the inertia.

No matter what the issue, they don’t want to commit the time, energy, or effort into the fight to change a problem that isn’t their problem.

However, deeply ingrained racial bigotry and homophobic bias are not the only aspects of cultural inertia we are faced with every day.

Gender Norms


Even after women took over almost every job and function of maintaining the United States economy while the clear majority of the men went off to fight in both World War I and World War II, society continued to perceive women as the weaker sex.

To this day, women they do not receive equal pay for equal work, because the cultural inertia tells us that a woman’s work is in the home, taking care of the family, while a man’s work is to be away from home providing the money to supply his wife with what she needs to take care of the family.

This traps both people in the marriage into a gender specific role that results in a man who nurtures being considered weak and effeminate and a woman who focuses on work outside the home to be considered domineering and overbearing.     Not surprisingly the derogatory words used to describe both are feminine words.    The man who is considered weak is referred to using a slang term for female genitalia – or having been whipped into submission by that female genitalia — while the woman who is consider too tough is referred to by terminology better reserved for indicating a female dog.

We even assign gender norms to the toys our children play with and the colors they happen to prefer.

We tell boys that showing emotion is “girly” and that they should toughen up and “take it like a man,” while we tell girls who do toughen up and “take it like a man” not to be so bitchy because it isn’t ladylike.

We need to let people be who they want to be without having to be insulted, demeaned, and dehumanized for their choice.   The world would be a better place for all of us, if we could embrace our own talents, skills, and passions without these outdated and unnecessary expectations defining us or limiting us.

But again, until there are more women in power positions, the responsibility of driving the change in the cultural norms rest with the men, and predominately with white men.   And those men are limited by their own societal expectations to be tough, brutal, and uncaring in their efficiency.    There is no incentive for them to stand out and be ostracized for attempting to break the inertia from which they personally benefit by nature of having those norms hold back men of color and all women, but most especially women of color.

They don’t want to commit the time, energy, or effort into the fight to change a problem that isn’t their problem.

Does this mean all heterosexual Caucasian men are racist, homophobic, misogynists?

No.   It does not.   But it does mean that enough of them aren’t breaking free of norms to stand out and push back against the inertia to change the direction of the culture.   And as long as the majority of the societal and cultural power rests within their hands, the responsibility rests with them as well.

If we pause to consider how those gender norms apply to our business culture, we can start to see another way cultural inertia is prevalent today.

Generational Conflict

We’ve all heard a parent – probably even our own – complain about how “Easy kids these days have it.”     Yet, I am certain we’ve never heard a parent wish that their own children were raised in a harsher, more difficult environment than the one they themselves were.   So, why are they all so upset about how easy they have it now?  Is it just an expression of nostalgia or is it a resistance to the change in norms that makes life easier for those younger generations?

Carrying this further, we’ve all seen articles and heard discussions about how difficult and needy members of the Millennial generation are to work with.

But the reality is that they’re not that difficult to work with, they’re just resisting the long established cultural inertia norm that older generations have accepted for years, which states that, a successful boss has to be a bully and a jerk, and if you want to keep your job, you have to take the abuse.

As Deborah Aarts wrote in her January 2017 article “Millennials aren’t coddled—they just reject abuse as a management tactic:

Younger employees keep getting stereotyped as insecure and needy. Perhaps the rest of us need to reconsider why we find it normal for bosses to be jerks.

This younger generation isn’t being weak by standing up and fighting against this norm, they are showing strength that members of the older generations lacked in their complacency.

We can take our cues from the leadership demonstrated by these Millennials.   We can stand up to those norms that are no longer acceptable en masse.   We can call out the problems, work to change them, and refuse to be limited or restricted by them.   But only together, and only by either forcing those in power to become invested in the change for their own benefit or by replacing those in power with others that want to break the inertia and move in our preferred direction can we be successful.

The first step in achieving those goals is to control the narrative.  Maintaining the narrative is imperative for those that want to cling to their norms and keep the inertia moving as it always has.

There are two important modern arguments that demonstrate this.   The first is:

Equal Opportunity vs. Equality

In general, most people who are fighting for equality, are actually fighting for equal opportunity.  They believe that every person, regardless of economic status, gender, skin color, or religion at birth deserve the same opportunities to a quality education, the same consideration of ability when applying for a school or employment, equal pay for equal quality of work and experience.

But they understand that not all people are equal.   Each person has different talents, passions, work ethic, life experience, motivations, and more.    But those that want to prevent change and maintain the inertia have managed to force us to adopt the terminology of equality in this battle instead of the terminology of equal opportunity.    In doing so they have framed the narrative of the argument to suit their needs.

The second modern example of this is:

Being Political Correct

For years, the cultural norm was common curtesy and common decency.   Even if you didn’t like someone you were polite in public.   At some point, a group of people reframed the narrative for this by labeling the expectation to not be a rude, abusive jerk at every opportunity as being forced to be politically correct.   In the process, they attached a negative connotation to it.

 In response to this, those in favor of maintaining some level of decorum pushed back hard, but they pushed back using the terminology that framed their own efforts in a negative light.   This led to often taking it to unnecessary and somewhat ridicules extremes, instead of just maintaining the previous inertia.

We can learn from this how important framing the debate can be.

Overcoming Cultural Inertia

We cannot let our opponents define the narrative we are going to use for our goals.   Doing so gives up our most important weapon in driving cultural change.

We must use the narrative, and terminology we create, to give everyone a vested reason in embracing, helping, and even leading the way, as we attempt to break free of the established inertia and choose a new, better direction.

Only then, will we begin to move toward the better society, culture, and world that we know is possible.

Neutral is no longer a viable option.

We must all commit the time, energy and effort into the fight to change these problems that affect us all, whether we realize it or not.

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