This new series uncovers what societal expectations our writers are working towards unlearning. In the first installment, Views Editor Emily Hay explores what unlearning is and why it’s so important.
The rise of the Instagram infographics in 2020 brought with it a term which many had never come across before: unlearning. A quick google search uncovers that psychology defines unlearning as “the process through which we break down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings, and biases. It’s asking ourselves: Where do these beliefs come from?” In a year like 2020 which brought about so much upheaval, it was naturally a time to question ourselves and the state of our own lives. It was also a year in which so much social inequality finally started getting the media and popular attention it had been worthy of for decades, so it also became a time for many of us to reflect on and question our own roles in the social structures in which we live.
Upon first reading the headline of this article you may find yourself thinking: we’re university students in full time education for a reason, why should we be spending time actively attempting to unlearn things? Shouldn’t we be trying to educate ourselves more on as many different topics as usual to gain knowledge of different viewpoints, rather than losing any? Well, yes – but that’s not really what unlearning means.
As we grow up, there are certain things we learn, some of which are taught to us, and some which just implicitly become parts of our lifestyles. More privileged children are taught to be afraid of those who have less than them; girls are taught its normal that they should be have scared going out alone; non-White children are taught they’ll have to be twice as good to get half as much; and we’re all taught that this is just how life is and we have to conform to it to squeeze any sort of happiness from it. But the thing is, if we begin questioning why the world is like this, why we’re taught these things and who benefits from them, things don’t seem nearly as inevitable as those in charge would have us believe. It’s perfectly possible to change the world, one thought at a time. Why do you think the Party in Orwell’s 1984 felt it was so crucial to crack down on thoughtcrime?
The things we unlearn can be big societal issues, but they can also be more personal things which society has taught you but which you feel are damaging to your own success and happiness. If you’re White or able-bodied for example, you should consider unlearning the idea that everyone works for where they end up in life, and not only recognise, but begin to dismantle, the systems which have propped you up whilst holding marginalised identities down. Equally though, you can unlearn things which contribute more to your own internalised unhappiness than they do to societal inequality; things like toxic productivity, success only being measured in financial gains, and unhealthy relationships with your body. What these things all have in common is that they don’t have their roots in our uninfluenced infant minds, they are seeds planted in our childhoods which grow as ungainly as trees covering a window view: we have to start cutting them back to see what light they truly have been blocking from us.
So yes, no matter who you are, how educated you are, or which spaces you occupy in society, there will be something that you believe which may not actually be as it first appears, and when you come across these beliefs in yourself you should be dismantling and questioning them. It’s not easy, but neither is going your whole life living with them, and building a better tomorrow is worth a little discomfort today. People may love to bash Instagram infographics, but never has anything, let alone a pretty pink square, made me reflect on myself and my beliefs so profoundly.