What are some interesting examples of a culture changing its mind?
January 4, 2016 3:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on a project that explores culture-wide examples of how wrong becomes right (and how right becomes wrong).

Sometimes a majority cultural practice, norm, ideology, belief, etc. will "flip," and what was once considered just fine will be considered taboo - or vice versa - something taboo and unacceptable or just plain wrong will become commonplace and "normal," or at least...not wrong.

There have been many paradigm shifts in science and philosophy, but I'm more interested in paradigm shifts among the common people - social change. These are grossly oversimplified, and not completely accurate - but as examples: In our own time, homosexuality and same-sex marriage went from "wrong" to "right," and before that lobster went from being disgusting garbage food to an expensive delicacy, and before that human slavery went from "acceptable" to "unacceptable."

What are some other examples? If you can provide sources or links to sources, that would be GREATLY appreciated.
posted by Lownotes to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Tomatoes, from poisonous to delicious in Europe etc.

Spices from high to low status (and back again, I guess) in western Europe.

Beef in Japan, from taboo to not (that's a hasty reference; I'm sure there are better ones out there).

Sushi in Japan from cheap street food to haute cuisine (and back again with conveyor-belt sushi, I guess).

Women as property.

(I don't think the switch on any of these has completely flipped--I have relatives whose relatives wouldn't eat tomatoes; women's status as fully autonomous legal and social beings is neither complete nor assured; many people still seem terrified of garlic, etc.)
posted by wintersweet at 3:47 PM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

pre C20 colour wasn't gendered (in western society). then it went blue for girls (pink for boys). then it reversed in the 40s. source.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:47 PM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Once it became evident that spitting caused Tuberculosis, there was a public service campaign to get people to stop spitting in public. I'd also suggest that smoking followed this same curve.

I used to be perfectly okay to smoke everywhere, at work, on planes, in the car, at home and while pregnant.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:54 PM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Foot binding in China.
FGM in some African communities. It's in the middle of changing.
posted by emkelley at 4:21 PM on January 4, 2016

Children born outside marriage used to be a big deal in a lot of places where it is now the norm or becoming the norm.
posted by biffa at 4:27 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was going to say premarital sex, which is almost totally unremarkable in the West these days when before WWII it could be life-ruining if anyone found out. Children outside marriage being a closely related issue!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:36 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

As we are currently exhausting and collapsing many of our food systems, work is already underway to farm insects to be rendered for protein (and/or fat).
So that's a prediction for a future flip - the idea of eating bugs will go from being unthinkable to becoming a normal source of nutrition.

It varies by country (and is probably already on your list) but smoking has gone from the height of cool to a marker of poverty or working-class, (and much more clearly, has flipped from a near-universally accepted activity to a highly-restricted and fraught one).
posted by anonymisc at 4:39 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pets should live outdoors has become pets should live indoors.
posted by anonymisc at 4:47 PM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

In our own time, homosexuality and same-sex marriage went from "wrong" to "right," and before that lobster went from being disgusting garbage food to an expensive delicacy, and before that human slavery went from "acceptable" to "unacceptable."

There are some broad generalizations here (slavery, for example, is now illegal in the United States, but still exists here, and is practiced much more broadly worldwide. Also, while the tide is certainly changing in the west on homophobia broadly, there is nothing like a broad-based "flip" toward tolerance - here's one of many examples.)

Instead, I'd look at these not as sudden "flips", but as the emergence into mainstream dialog and thinking of ideas that are often rooted in generations of activism (often by radicals, in the case of political / social justice issues - e.g. abolitionism in the US really gets underway in the 17th c.)

Lobster is likely a better example - fashion being much more malleable than social convention. Another that comes to mind is the relatively quick passing of facial hair from de rigueur article of men's fashion to outdated/disgusting as a result of c. 1900 public health campaigns related to TB.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:00 PM on January 4, 2016

Changing ideas about the inherent attributes of children in Western culture contains many such broad moral shifts in the practice of childrearing: for example, the physical punishment of children, children's providing extra labor for a family, the rights of children to express emotion and opinion. In all these, I'm describing changes that occurred in the context of European and U.S. rise of the middle class and broader cultural shifts towards secularism.
posted by flourpot at 5:04 PM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Littering, in the USA. Smoking as well.
posted by town of cats at 5:18 PM on January 4, 2016

Women used to be forbidden to wear pants. Children were previously all dressed in dresses (males and females).
posted by hydra77 at 5:24 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

In Japan, it used to be taboo (or gross) to eat raw salmon, until Norway re-marketed it.

Chilean Sea Bass was previously known as a toothfish. Marketing helped give it a name of something we actually want to eat.
posted by hydra77 at 5:30 PM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Women didn't drive. (My mother from Eastern Europe who is 76 still thinks it's harder for a woman to learn to drive than a man because women have no sense of direction.)
posted by Dragonness at 5:57 PM on January 4, 2016

I can’t remember where this comes from, exactly, so sorry for lack of sourcing. But some writer pointed out that sexual harassment and adultery have flipped in terms of acceptability/egregiousness. Example: Joseph McCarthy constantly sexually harassed (and assaulted, with pinches/gropes) his female secretaries, but he never cheated on his wife, so according to the mores of his era he was considered sexually normal/moral, because sexual harassment was viewed as a “little” flaw, something basically understandable and commonplace, a “we’ve all been there” type peccadillo, but adultery was a big unforgivable act that only “bad” people committed.

Today, however, many people consider adultery to be a “little” mistake, understandable, “we’ve all been there” type peccadillo, while committing sexual harassment is now a beyond the pale, career-ending, only “bad” people commit this-type violation.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:03 PM on January 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

My grandfather, in his life book thingie, wrote that in the 1920s, everyone spit everywhere and wife beating was totally normal (in fact HIS father was once arrested for interfering in the neighbor's beating of his very pregnant wife. The neighbor was not arrested.). These were immutable facts of life that completely disappeared as acceptable behavior during his adulthood. He also noted the acceptance of homosexuality -- unimaginable to the point of their existence being unspeakable when he was little ... became grandchildren bringing same-sex partners to his 85th birthday because no bigs. He also highlighted that women began swearing in public, which he never got used to.

(Children wearing skirts changing to pants etc isn't so much about social norms as changing technology in washing, fabric, and sewing ... pants are expensive and fragile in old wovens and take much longer to sew and children are ruining ruiners who grow out of things. Skirts solve these problems, and olden time little boys wear short pants because nobody wants to pay for their knees going through long pants until they quit falling down and growing so fast.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:15 PM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Here in Ireland, it used to be expected that most single mothers would give up their children for adoption. Now any mother doing that would face significant disapproval.
posted by Azara at 6:21 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Alcohol. In the 1950 movie Harvey, Jimmy Stewart played a lovable drunk whose best friend was a giant rabbit. In 1960s sitcoms, alcoholism was played for laughs (Otis on the Andy Griffith Show). Pregnant women drank. Now any character who drinks excessively has to eventually admit to being an alcoholic and attend an AA meeting in a very special episode.

The concept of the "designated driver" became part of US culture because it was purposely inserted into TV shows until it became viewed as normal. See the book "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath for this and other examples of deliberate cultural changes.

In the 1960s, there was a drink called "Funny Face" (like Kool-Aid). Two of the original flavors were "Injun Orange" and "Chinese Cherry." They did change those after complaints, but I still clearly remember the commercials.
posted by FencingGal at 6:42 PM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

The color pink used to be considered masculine.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:55 PM on January 4, 2016

Fast-pitch softball used to be a sport enjoyed by both sexes in the U.S.

Now, it is almost exclusively considers a female sport, while slow-pitch skyrocketed in popularity as a men's beer league sport.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:59 PM on January 4, 2016

More sports: As recently as the 1950s, the most popular spectator sports in the U.S. were baseball, college football, horse racing and boxing.

Pro football eclipsed everything. Baseball is still popular, but it's fan base has been creeping up in average age for decades now. Horse racing and boxing essentially fell off the table of popularity (boxing especially losing out to MMA in the last 10 years), although individual events and athletes still command attention.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:04 PM on January 4, 2016

I'm not having any luck google-verifying it but a college professor claimed that the Roman Senate would sometimes vote traditions into existence and everyone would simply agree to start saying it was the ancient way of the ancestors.
posted by XMLicious at 9:58 PM on January 4, 2016

Fois Gras: High-fat staple of Jewish ghettos was "discovered" by French chefs
Lobster: from cat food to delicacy
Oysters: Because of the risk / required effort, these were served to the poor
Polenta: Peasant cornmeal for Italian villagers reinvented by celebrity chefs
Quinoa: Peruvian peasant grain is now a superfood
Sushi: Japanese peasant food "reinvented" as exotic in Post War-II America
Caviar: Leftover eggs from fish were served to French poor
Chicken wings: Throw-away pieces from butcher cut were slathered in spices
Oxtail: Leftover cut used to be given away to the poor

Cigarettes: At one point, more than 50% of the population smoked. Smoking indoors was allowed. Smoking on airplanes.
Marijuana: Has now passed cigarette consumption in the United States
Opium: Was sold over the counter, and is now a Schedule I narcotic
Cocaine: Used to be added to Coca Cola
Drinking and driving was once acceptable
Drinking at work was commonplace

Women wearing pants/trousers: Used to be illegal in France
Tattoos: Heavily stigmatised and once reserved for army soldiers
It was acceptable to marry first cousins
Corporal punishment for children, either by parents or teachers

One of my favourites: linguistic taboos
Little wonder the Swedes had long toyed with the idea of reform. In the early 20th century the word ni, previously used only as the plural of you, had enjoyed a measure of popularity as a formal singular, equivalent to vous in French. However, because its use aroused the suggestion that the addressee had no title, it was seen as insufficiently respectful. Another strategy was to avoid second-person pronouns entirely, by invoking cumbersome formulations such as “Would a biscuit be permitted?” instead of “Would you like a biscuit?
posted by nickrussell at 2:10 AM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

50 years ago we would leave the baby in the carriage outside stores while shopping.

Elementary school teachers were almost exclusively female, it was felt there was something wrong with men who wanted to work with children.

Up until not too long ago, it was unheard of for a father to stay home to raise his children while the mother worked.

Men had careers they enjoyed, women worked to earn money.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:59 AM on January 5, 2016

The idea of doctors washing their hands between patients was VERY offensive to doctors at first, because it implied doctors were making people sick!

Even today doctors aren't as stringent about handwashing hygiene as they should be.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:59 AM on January 5, 2016

I have a theory about litter. I think litter is an example of a culture changing its mind because there was a change in technology.

It's totally fine if you pick a pomegranate in a small town, throw the peel off the side of the road and a pig comes along and eats it for you. It's a different story when you unwrap a candy bar and throw the wrapper in the road and a car drives over it.
posted by aniola at 11:26 PM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I listened to a podcast episode about drinking fountains, and how they became public because basically everyone, including children, only drank alcohol prior to the early 1800s. So everyone was drinking all the time, until temperance and all that.
posted by SassHat at 10:12 PM on January 17, 2016

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