Often I hear the phrase “It is what it is”. It is a way to respond to stressful personal and political situations. The phrase is one of acceptance for the way things are instead of becoming overly anxious about them. But it is so prevalent that it seems like an attitude of disengagement. Recently, I asked people of our church in different venues, what they would change if they had the power to do so. I expected more personal issues to arise. Instead they all tended to address social issues. They ranged from health care, efficient transportation, negativity in politics, livable communities to the need for work churches together. There was great dialogue of what needs to change, but also a sense of powerlessness to see real change happen, a sense of resignation “it is what it is”.
We all process these social issues differently. Anthony Gibbons sees the idea of reflexivity as essential in social life. The process of how we reflect and respond to society he calls reflexivity. He states that, “reflexivity in modern social life consists of the fact that social processes are constantly being examined and reformed” (Anthony Elliott p.132). One common way people react to social issues is disengagement. Gibbons sees reflexivity as the ability for society to “self-monitor” (p.133). The “it is what it is” phrase in not really how we engage in society. Our daily routines shape our social life. We are agents in the process not passive observers. Behind many of people’s responses to what they would like to see changed is an anxious anger at some institution, politician or social trend. Society “out there” should change. What Gibbons points out is that the way we respond effects the social climate we live in. Our anger, our anxiety effects how we vote, whom we include in our lives and our involvement in our communities.
Another response is to have a knee-jerk reaction to social problems. While Gibbons dismisses knee-jerk reactions as part of our reflexive responses, Ulrich Beck sees a positive side to knee-jerk reflexivity. Our reflexes are part of the process of responding to society. There is not only an understanding of issues; there are reflexes in society that are not without risk. Although Beck point to risk as the lens for his social theory to far, risk is part of social process and progress. Basically, we cannot be blind to the risks of change in society. (p. 288) We need to “self-confront” (p. 289). Critical thinking is about asking vital question of ourselves and our world. The “it is what it is” thinking may be helpful to deal with stress, but it is not what engages us to make positive change happen.
What troubles people about change is the loss of the traditions of the past. We tend to look on the past nostalgically and not critically. To see that progress has its risk and consequences, to see that the past oppressed people groups, and to be self-critical about why we chose passive or angry responses to societies issues all are healthy ways forward. Then reflexively that engages rather that opts out of important conversations and actions in society is no longer an option.
Elliot, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis, 2008.