Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Aliis Non Licet, Tibi Si Licet?

On Independence, Peer Pressure and Self-Delusion

Since early childhood we are taught to abhor peer pressure. Our individualistic society worships the idea that our own internal moral compass and good sense will guide us without the need to see where everyone else is going, and how they feel about our course. It is an important message, working to reduce the rates of underage smoking, drinking and teen pregnancy. Nonetheless, this message has its ancillary costs; people are not able to prevent their subconscious need for self-validation from interfering with their ability to critically examine their own wishes, wants and positions.

All too often, our opinions, goals and feelings are shaped by forces that we would not consciously want setting policy. One person, while a Democrat, may support lowering the tobacco tax because she smokes, and gun rights because she likes to shoot. Another person, ostensibly aspiring to becoming an intellectual, rationalizes her refusal to actual engage in intellectual activity by telling herself that she is at a sweet spot, feeling that people more cerebral than her are engaging in pointless activity, and people less so are simply ignorant. Self-interest is not an immoral criterion to use in determining one's political views, but it is a tragedy when the lack of critical comment leaves a person unaware that their self-interest is clouding a judgment they perceive to be unbiased and selfless. Similarly one need not change oneself for the sake of an arbitrary label; however it is unfortunate if someone does aspire to a certain state of enlightenment and deceives herself as to what that entails.
EDIT: The two examples above are figments of my imagination, and certainly are not allusions to any persons, real or fictional.

Of course this issue transcends these two hypothetical examples. Any moral compass is susceptible to having one's subconscious toy with its headings. Osama bin Laden no doubt feels that he is morally justified in his actions. We being citizens of the United State would beg to differ, and in fact say that he had no reason and no right to do what he did. How can this state exist? Both sides are having their moral compass influenced by their policy agenda, and the plight of those around them. 9/11 blinds us to a possibly valid grievance that was used as a rationale for an invalid act. That grievance blinded the people of al-Qaeda to the fact that their actions were not justified, no matter that the provocation. Now we call him evil, he calls us evil, and this process continues.

The only check to this corruption of our conscious choices, opinions, goals and morals is to have critical discourse with peers. Only when someone disagrees with one, and thus forces one to defend oneself or at least one's point of view, are the reasons for that point of view held up to the light and any such influences made clear. These subconscious imperatives make themselves known in the form of unsupported assumptions or blind preferences. (Comments like "I just like this better, I have no reason") While preferences regarding one's attire are harmless and thus reasonable to leave in hands of blind preference, the same is not true for one's moral and ethical code.

Herein the tragedy of the anti-peer pressure campaign shows itself. In a society that does not accept that one's peers have the right to check someone with a wandering moral compass, or a wavering grasp on reality, how do we prevent people from suffering thus? In a society that worships mass culture and hates intellectual discourse, how can our "marketplace of ideas" ever be anything more than a cacophony of self-serving demands?


At 4:48 PM, [REDACTED] said...

"In a society that worships mass culture..."

I think that's the flipside of your point. Yes, the point is driven home starting at an early age that just 'cause everyone else jumps off a building doesn't mean you should too (to use my mother's favorite example.)

But there's a flipside that is driven in just as hard. We don't just tell kids that "You're special. Be all you can be. You are a unique and beautiful snowflake." We also tell them "The rules apply to you too," "All men are created equal," and "You're not special. You have to do X just like everyone else." I mean for crying out loud we throw kids into daycare with 15 other screaming brats at 3 months old. Just how unique do we actually expect them to be?

Result: to successfully adapt to modern culture requires the mastery of a sort of social schizophrenia. You gotta know when the "You're special" rules are in play, and know when the "You're the same" rules are the norm. Those who err on the side of being special are megalomaniacs; those who err on the side of normalcy are at best mindless drones and at worse, depressive and suicidal.

Me? Yeah, I'm special. Very special. I know 'cause my mom and my girlfriend told me so.

At 2:53 PM, [REDACTED] said...

In addition to what Austin has said I'd like to add in some thoughts on how peer pressure works. In society peer pressure often works as both a pro and a con on an issue. For example, in America in many innercities amongst black and Latino populations it's not only common for teenagers to have kids but in some places it's a status symbol. It makes you cool to have a kid. In other places (we'll call them white suburbia) teenagers girls that have kids are normally looked down upon and their parents pull them out of school before they even start showing so that the family isn't embarassed. I think you can see the same thing with smoking and drinking and what not. It would seem that both sides of the argument are out there and it's not so much a matter of whether people ever have their beliefs challenged and really live an examined life. I think it's much more a question of if they care that they're challenged. A lot of people never think that they could get a different set of friends if the ones they have are peer pressuring them into things they don't want to do. Similarly a lot of people won't question how they were raised... not because they're not challenged on it or have never thought about it... but because they choose to not question it.

I agree with Rahul. A lot of people say things like "because it's what I believe" or just "because" when they are challenged. I dont' think this is a response to our society saying that you can believe whatever you want or even a response to people not having their beliefs challenged. I think it's easier to lead an unexamined life. Wouldn't it save a lot of heartache and pain if you never really questioned why you believed things and just always assumed that the way you lived your life and the things you believed were right? I know life would be easier for me if I never questioned things. I don't think life would be better... but then again I've never bought the ignorance is bliss argument. But some people do and those are the people that I think don't question how they live or what they believe.

At 3:54 PM, [REDACTED] said...

I think that these comments on this issue are quite poignant, and reflect the dilemma facing all young adults, myself included. What is my place in this society? How do I define myself? Do I accept society for what it is? and numerous other questions that really cannot be answered except by the person asking them. I would agree that most don't live examined lives, as effective self-reflection requires one to answer some difficult questions, and life is often easier without answering the difficult questions. I can't offer much in the way of solutions, as I can't answer these questions for anyone other than me, but if I could offer the perspective of one who has spent a few more years wrangling with these very issues, that these are the questions that can only be answered for a specific point in time, for the answers are always changing, and they should be, otherwise we stagnate. Even those who don't ask these questions of themselves move through different phases of life, ignorance doesn't mean they don't do it. But rather they are unaware of it.
I would boil it down to conformity vs. non-conformity and how do we address that. First it would require us to come up with what conformity means, and I do believe the law sets a bare minimum for many moral and even ethical decisions. After that comes societal pressure, in the form of family and friends. Then we have to wonder how is this pressure applied, and is the pressure accepted as valid, or dismissed out of hand. As for how does society deal with someone with a misplaced moral compass? They send them to jail when it harms someone else, or in the case of Martha Stewart, when it doesn't harm anyone else. As for how we "manipulate" our friends to our way of thinking, I'm a little disturbed that you don't respect your friends' opinions well enough to accept them for what they are. Sure, disagreement will challenge one to defend their opinions, but often it can just drive them away. There isn't always a five point thesis on why people feel the way they do, and the majority of people on the planet live that way. Does that make it right? Well, what is right? Should people have logical reasons for what they believe, in your and my opinion they should, but our opinions only sort of count. I, for one, would rather not make everyone's decisions for them, it's far too much work, and isn't always what they want. Does this mean we end up with bad results? Yes, we can work to avoid them, but they will still happen. Look at the 2000 election. Was an inexperienced, poorly-spoken C student the best choice for president? Well, in most people's opinion, no, but that isn't always enough. The irrationality of humanity has to be taken into account. It is the least controllable facet of humanity, but it cannot be ignored. If it could, economics would be a pure science.

At 5:46 PM, [REDACTED] said...

To clarify, I would say that as someone who worships at the altar of the diputational dialectic, I heartily desire my friends to challenge my ideas and my moral compass. I also expect that they will not only tolerate, but welcome the same in return.

I realize that this process alienates many, even some who ostensibly agree that such is necissary. Some tell me that they have been through this process and have completed "finding their identity". To say one is finished refining one's ideology, philosophy, moral code or ethical structure is to say that one has given in to the temptation to take the easy road towards a personal echo chamber.

How different would Bush be if he still believed that he was not an ideological island?

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