Changing the way that large numbers of people think and subsequently act can be very difficult. It is sometimes referred to as culture change, because behaviour is so ingrained through social norms it can become part of a collective identity, moving from what we do to part of what we are.
Some behaviour seems intractable, like Scotland’s relationship with alcohol, which despite many years of education campaigns and clear health warnings, still plays a bigger part in lives than is prudent, and imposes a huge cost both in human and economic terms.
But there have also been some remarkable successes on changing behaviour over relatively short periods of time. While drink driving is still to be completely eradicated, there has been a sea change as regards its cultural acceptance in little more than a generation. Attitudes have really changed.
And now the thought that a smoky pub, or club, or cinema or bus or aeroplane is acceptable has probably changed forever following the smoking ban, and that is over an even shorter period of time. Yes, people stil smoke, but the culture around it has changed markedly.
So it is worth taking a moment and realising just what a welcome signal is delivered by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey: Attitudes to Discrimination, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
This is a sign of an even deeper and more momentous change. The study tells us that prejudice based on age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or religion is falling. The study makes very encouraging reading, but there are a couple of elements that are worth highlighting.
Given all the controversy about immigration, both in the wider European context with the humanitarian crisis and in the light of the UK’s polarising Brexit campaign, it is satisfying that this study says more people than ever before value the positive impact of people moving to Scotland from other countries.
And another highlight would be that the proportion of people in Scotland who think same-sex relationships are always or mostly wrong had fallen to its lowest ever level.
Becoming more tolerant must be one of the most desirable characteristics in any society, it changes so many lives for the better. Squeezing out discrimination is a very worthy achievement.
We can indeed be proud of the progress we have made and we must thank the many tireless campaigners in all areas that have played a big part in making this happen.
But we still have work to do obviously, with the research still showing relatively high levels of prejudice towards some groups inlcuding people who cross-dress, those who have undergone gender reassignment and gypsy/travellers.
We can all play an individual part in becoming more tolerant as a society, and we should all strive to do so. But let us also recognise the wonderful enormity of what has been achieved here, and celebrate it.