Can pressure of society permits to free development of individuality?A poem by W.H. Auden, “Unknown Citizen” does well to show the negative effects of labels and certain assumptions that are made by society. The poem lists the characteristics of a seemingly average and stereotypical person. He is seemingly average because all of his census information is in no way extraordinary, and he shows no signs of stepping outside his bounds as a person, always acting and living the socially acceptable way. This quote is taken from the last five lines of the poem, as the list of his proper behavior ands and the questions about his life are debunked.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he Happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
The speaker has no reason to assume anything beyond the happiness and freedom of the individual under question since the individual showed no statistical reason for being discontent. This statistical information only puts labels of normality on the person. To the speaker normality, beyond question, means happiness and freedom. That statement in itself however is contradictory and the poem, through the last line is revealed to be a satire on the assumption that conformity would lead to happiness.
All the previous works pointed at the negative aspects of conformity, but there are truly positive aspects of social expectations. Social contracts are necessary for the survival of society and thus for the survival of the individual in society. Society in itself is useful because it helps people identify with one another. This prevents constant competition among the members of society, and instead encourages goodwill toward others.
The implied social contracts of society take a few freedoms from individuals and places a few responsibilities on individuals, but in the process it gives back a great deal. The individual receives protection, some guaranteed freedoms, which may be impinged upon if others were given the right to impinge, and a general sense of security. Basically the social contract prohibits individuals from doing mean things to others as a means for happiness. Such a restriction is quite reasonable for individuals since allowing for such constant competition would result is a general deflation of attitude in every member of society. That is only with the assumption that humans are naturally evil in nature, however, for if everyone was generally evil the social contract would do more good than harm, by preventing the extreme and negative effects of competition. If the assumption is made, that most humans are good by nature, then the social contract does more harm than not, by limiting the actions of individuals by unnecessary restrictions.
Through practice, the question regarding social theory has been answered. Social contracts seem to work in building better societies and bring about a seemingly happier population through prosperity of the society. From the first few documents for social order that included a social contract like the Mayflower Compact, to the more modern and sophisticated versions of social documents like The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Plymouth colony proceeded to overcome many crises and the United States went on to become a superpower. While other variations of a social contract based forms of state did not work to the same extent, the reason they failed was the ratio of rights and freedoms given up and the amount that the state gave back. This ratio, real life shows, should be lowest for the most effective society. This ratio is the fundamental indicator of the range of individuality allowed by a particular society. If, however, the state, the society of the United States asks the least of its citizens then how does the society act as a singular unit and prosper so well, better than any other country at the present?
The reason the US is able to grant so many freedoms to each individual is due to the fact that the society that the state represents, the same state that is supposed to enforce the social contract, is able to take away its own freedoms and control the individual freedoms and responsibilities in a more subtle way. That more subtle way to do so is usually in the form of social pressure. While United States’ government poses relatively few official limitations on individuals, the society that the government represents manages to do the rest of the work in the form of social pressures, so that the ratio of freedoms given up and the amount that society givens back seems small but in practice, yet the freedoms taken far exceeds what is perceived.
Such an idea, of a society that manages to make its own limitation on individuals, at the same time giving the individual the perception that not many of the individual rights were in fact limited, is relatively new and progressive. There are several ways in which society manages this feat. Social norms, as Dan mentioned are one way. Manners are the most explicit example of such social norms, and they are not exclusive to the US. Only certain tones can be used when talking to strangers, elders, or teachers. One cannot eat salad without utensils. If Dan were to use his hands to consume a delicious Caesar Salad, because in his mind that was the best way to go about it, then his family around the table would be appalled. They would probably not know the exact reason for being appalled, but something inside their minds, like an instinctual reaction would shape their faces into disapproving looks, and then they would respond by educating Dan as to the necessity of using utensils, for not using them was wrong. An education would commence and Dan would most probably use utensils around his family thereafter. This response is imprinted unto every working member of society. The response is also educative and self replicating, for if it was the working member of society who was being lectured about the use of utensils afterwards, then he would pass on the response of his family unto his own children if they ever tried to use their hands to consumer a meal.
Every working member of society enforces manners. Manners take away personal freedoms without being actually bold and explicit about it. Not being able to follows these manners causes negative feelings of shame and embarrassment that are hard to hide from and preferably avoided at every case. This type of behavior is almost imprinted upon every member of society from early childhood on and there is practically no way to escape it. Unlearning such behavior carries a small chance of actual profit in happiness due to the effort and wasted time such a process would take.
Another way that society itself extracts freedom from individuals for its own good is through the defined paths of progression that Dan mentioned. From birth, our lives are already planned out for the next 16 to 24 years. While it is direct law that forces us to go to school until the age of 16, no direct law is mandated by the state to enforce makes high school students go to college. It is the constant social pressure that takes the freedom from several high school students to excel at life in any other way except the one that passes through college. Such social pressure is evident in the words of high school teachers which, in honors classes make the assumption that their seniors are actually going to college the following year. Such pressure is evident in the disparaging average income between the population with simply a high school degree and the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Another example of social pressure that the society in the United States tries to employ is the control of the media. As mentioned earlier, media, such as magazines, television shows, movies, pop culture, and songs, is enjoyed by nearly everyone. It stimulates people in the same way that books and essays stimulated people a few centuries earlier. Now however, there are more choices of what to watch, listen or read. The number of choices of different media to stimulate themselves with is not proportionate to the popularity of different aspects of media. That is to say, some television shows are more popular and watched than others. More viewers watch the OC than a History Channel documentary of World War II. More people watch CSI than the Daily Show. More people watch David Letterman than Conan O’Brien. The popular program in this case, has a lot of power of expression of opinion. If the OC expressed its support of John Kerry before the most recent election, the results may have been different.
If a great number of people watch the same television shows then the opinion that show projects would reach the views and their opinions would be shaped similarly. That forces conformity of opinion and that is also how a branch of media operated. Pop music is labeled that way because it is popular. It is exceptional in no way other than the fact that everybody listens to it. If someone is searching for a Pop music album, then that someone is just trying to get music that everyone else enjoys. The greatest measurement of success of such an album is on the Billboard charts every week. Individual reviews and praise, or lack of, is not an indicator that is looked at as a goal when production of such albums takes place.
Another example of social pressure in the United States is the pressure the southern society has on its members to be religious. Of course, every society exceeds a pressure for religiosity to some extent or the other. The south is notorious for it. Such a pressure used to be a part of the direct ways a state controlled its members. That is, it used to be mixed with laws and was not a pressure but a direct expectation that society had. As the societies matured however and gave its citizens more freedom directly, the religion requirement vanished and is only implemented as a pressure in modern society. Society matured in a way such that religion was not longer necessary to mold the behavior of individuals, for society evolved to such a point where it did not even need the state to interfere directly for that end. Now most of society has abandoned religion and moved on to more advanced methods of placing responsibility on individuals. However, there is still some pressure for individuals to be faithful and to demonstrate that faith, even if the need for religion has dissipated with the more advanced methods society has for population control.
While the United States’ implementation of the social expectations that it holds through social contracts and social pressure did well to create a flourishing country, what did those pressures do for the individual in that society? Effects of the unique social system of The United States has on the actual country is apparent. The country is a superpower; it holds one of the world’s most powerful economies, if not the most powerful, it is the envy of almost all nations around the globe. Some countries try to get to where the United States is by directly enforcing social expectations through laws, and doing so in excess so that it could be guaranteed that every member contributes a great deal. An example of such a country is the Soviet Union. That state could not afford to built and evolve a society that employed all the subtle social pressures that seem to work so well since it had to play “catch up” to the US and had no time to develop. The Soviet Union instead implemented a no-nonsense approach of making each individual contribute to society instead of themselves. It used social norms as its primary tool instead of trying to develop its own informal norms. The result was a somewhat stable, powerful, but ultimately unstable state. In the Soviet Union, Leonid said, one could be an individual all they wanted, unlike here in the US, and nobody would give you a funny look or question your behavior at all.
The legal limits of individuality was much more bound than in the United States. More laws existed to constrict the individuals actions. There was no possibility of private enterprise. Free speech existed as long as you did not say anything to anger the government. The government would try to impose ideas on you, but as long as you accepted those , there was no limit to the things you could think, and nobody would think you as a crazy person. Clearer, but also stricter limits to individuality were put down in the Soviet Union, but apparently, that did not work as well as the United States’ method.
The comparison of the these two societies shows that the United States holds a more evolved and more effective method of enforcement of social expectations than the Soviet Union, since the United Sates still exists today, and the Soviet Union has fallen due to social discontent. The assumption to be made is that, while both countries had the same level of social expectations on its individuals, it appeared to the citizens to the United States that they had a relatively low amount of expectation and limitations placed on them because most of it was subtle. On the other hand, people were discontent in the Soviet Union because all the social expectations placed on them were readily seen and apparent.
Even though people in the Soviet Union were given the same amount of limitations, with their freedoms being taken away more visibly, it was not the most effective way to enforce social expectations and it resulted in the downfall of the Soviet Union. The United States may have relatively larger social pressures but these social pressures can be avoided much easier than formal norms such as laws. That type of society, even of it discourages it, leaves room for individuality that can still abide by formal norms to a greater extent. Why does such a system work better? Why should a society that gives the ability to be an individual, even though it may cause discomfort and pressure, work better than a society that does not discourage individuality in any other way than formally?
The answer may lie in the very workings of individualism. Most people are very satisfied with being conformists. There is a very high percentage of people which in all societies are not troubled neither by the informal norms, the social pressures, or the formal norms. This majority of the population could care less how visible society’s control over them is. They could live in both the Soviet Union and the United States and in both places, if society’s return for them was favorable, they would be completely satisfied. The small minority of the population which comprises the people who are not satisfied with losing individuality and conformity are the ones who decide if the social system they live under works or not. These nonconformists will seek out every way of living like an individual they can. For these people, the awkward glances will be easier to take than strict enforcement of the formal norms and laws and hence the things they worry about are the formal limitations that society puts on them.
The decision of either abiding by the formal norms such as laws or not is made according to how restrictive the formal norms are. If whatever makes nonconformists in a society happy infringes upon these formal norms, they will still do it, and at the same time become criminals and causing havoc in their society. If the formal norms are not as pervasive, then they do not have to be criminals and have the option of living their life of individualism without breaking any laws. Fewer formal norms broken in a society improve its functions and the life of the nonconformists within it.
Different societies will produce relative similar ratios of expectations to things given back. Some of those expectations may be demands that, if broken, are strictly punished. Some of the expectations are pressures that, if broken, are frowned upon. In Orwell’s 1984 a society was painted that demanded a great deal of individuality to be given up by its members, and the society ultimately worked, but it represented a nightmarish depiction of everything gone wrong with the world, where the only option given was conformity or death, and where our hero Winston was forced into the first. Martin Eden and Neal ultimately made the wrong decision in committing suicide. Even if society was too restrictive on them, it was not doing so through inescapable things like laws. They didn’t have to care what others thought. Martin Eden could have ultimately kept writing his essays and stories and not cared for the reason why people read them, just as long as he liked what he was writing. Neal did not need a specific education for acting. He had the option of running away from home and military school, and pursuing his dream on his own, without the approval of his father.
In the United States, society does indeed encourage conformity, but society also leaves the most room to express yourself as an individual. One does not need to be bothered with the informal norms that roam strong in the US. The stronger social norms and pressures make individuality, if pursued, all the sweeter. The reaches are greater, the options are more accessible.
So the next time you feel like being an individual, go for it, for it probably makes you happy, if you wish to do it. The whole point of this essay, however, would be debunked if I tell the reader how to live life. go do whatever makes you happy, be it the same thing that makes gives the same pleasure to twenty other people, or twenty million. If you notice your restrictions and try to overcome them, or if you can’t see them at all and are satisfied either way, it doesn’t matter then, because you are still yourself and are happy either way. But if you ever notice these restrictions, and see them standing between you and your happiness, do not feel afraid to overcome them.
Auden, W H. Unknown Citizen. 25 Apr. 2005.
Dead Poets Society. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leopard. DVD. Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, Gativideo, 1989.
London, Jack. Martin Eden. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1967. 460.
Orwell, George. 1984. 25 Apr. 2005.
Reedy, Dan. Online interview. 26 Apr. 2005.
Sakharov, Leonid G. Personal interview. 25 Apr. 2005.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Harrison Bergeron. 22 Apr. 2005
Initially submitted at Jul. 6, 2005; 18:47
Dec. 6, 2017; 18:42 EST