Why Do We Just Accept Things?

A couple days ago, I came across the photo below, taken from a wall in New York City. Under it was the caption, “Think about it, if only for a second.” So I did.

Photo by Andy Asimakis (2011)

I thought about it for several seconds. Then I went back to the photo and thought about it some more.

The things that we human beings will accept are absolutely amazing. On many occasions, large groups of people have managed to accept things that make people today think they must have been stupid or cowards. And people today accept things that, in the future, our descendants will probably regard the same way.

Acceptance is not all bad, of course. The world isn’t all roses and sunshine; humans do need to adapt, and before that can happen, we need to accept and absorb what is around us. No doubt, there have been some humans who had too much of a tendency to not accept the things around them, and they probably didn’t make much of a contribution to our gene pool.

But when it comes to our social environment, over-acceptingness can be a major point of weakness, and even a fatal flaw. “Doormat” is a pretty apt metaphor for one who consistently accepts too much. “Sheep” is another. Vast numbers of people have knowingly been led to horrible fates simply because they nodded their heads and submitted at the wrong moment. Those same people didn’t have much to contribute to the human gene pool.

Even for lesser situations than life-or-death, many people lack some mechanism that allows them to say “No” and to alter things when circumstances become unacceptable. So many times in our lives, especially for those of us in the lower socioeconomic tiers, we just say “Okay” and put up with whatever obstacle or injustice is put in our path.

Higher taxes? “Okay.” Big rent increase? “Okay.” Kicked out of one’s own home? “Okay.” That magic word okay lets us continue on the path of least resistance, even if it leads somewhere worse than the other path, where we’d have to say “No” and maybe fight our way through. Being obedient reduces conflict.

However, being obedient can often amount to surrendering our freedom. That’s what we are doing when someone tries to force something objectionable on us, and we just let it happen. Were we acting freely, we would not allow that objectionable thing, but we instead permit someone else to take control over our behavior. When there is an immediate threat to our safety or our lives, it makes some sense, but it happens much more often than that.

This supine attitude is behind nearly every successful infringement of our freedom. We just try to be good, obedient people, and it can easily result in some person or institution taking advantage of us—just like humans learned long ago to use shouting and the pounding of horse hooves to direct herds of livestock. We assume that the safe option is always the correct one, the option that will preserve our freedom and our security.

That is why we just accept things. Whether by conditioning or some innate quality, we lean toward the option that seems like it will keep us safe and free in the immediate situation, even if it won’t in the long term.

Is there a lesson in this? Maybe. Some people are just inherently cowards, and their responses will always be to accept the immediately safe choice, no matter the long-term consequences. But the majority of people fall somewhere between “coward” and “rebel without a cause,” and their responses can be guided with a little bit of foresight and will power.

Refusing to accept something—that is, resisting—often has the potential to land us in hot water. However, many of us need to learn and understand that taking the chance of landing in hot water is always better than foolishly sitting in warm, comfortable water while it is being boiled. Sometimes the correct option, the one that will keep us safe and free, is to resist.