Monday, August 06, 2007

a view on "being different" and social conformity

take an old-fashioned feminist who doesn't like the attention that Being Different attracts, and doesn't think non-conformity has to have a high-visibility component. add to that a strong tendency to be a peacenik. i am very, very picky about what ways i will "stand out" from the crowd.

while sometimes non-conformity is intelligent and necessary for integrity to one's political beliefs, most times i hear it being advocated like a panacea. Being Different seems to be regarded as a GoodThing(TM).

especially if you are a feminist you are expected to Be Different by adopting certain (predictable) patterns of behaviour. other than the fact that these patterns are again dictated by an arbitrary someone who considers they know best as to what is liberating for the feminist in question, the reasons given for advocating non-conformity are almost half-baked - and any refusal to comply and obligingly Be Different in the dictated manner means you are sadly under patriarchal control still!

broadly speaking, i think there are two kinds of social demands.

the first are to do with respectability/decency/something-else-equally-vague; the second is to do with maintaining the social fabric.

the first kind is the set of demands that are made of us as individuals representing a certain group. society is full of competing groups that try to attain social dominance/power. when a group A that is more powerful than group B decides that group B is worth noticing or being allies with, group B's power increases.

historically, B groups try to sell their members as highly desirable members, who are "respectable", "decent" or whatever else is in vogue. the group makes social demands of its members, along the lines of "if you're decent you wouldn't do this". it's telling that most of these decency/whatever conformity demands are mostly only restrictive! the group makes these demands purely to make sure that you don't embarass it. so no, the group doesn't give a damn about the individual in its quest for political power.

saying bow-wow to these demands is a part of rebellion against the group's oppression of its members, but it's nowhere near enough. this sort of non-conformity is important in adolescence when you're (hopefully :D) determining your politics and practising resistance because it's a relatively easy way to challenge the way you live and think.

but carried beyond a certain age and in the absence of anything more profound than the purely symbolic gesture, it's quite pointless and peurile. it becomes pop-rebellion along the lines of "i do ganja and so i am liberated and very progressive!".

i also think that this is a kind of non-conformity that doesn't really demand much of you as long as you don't mind the occasional bursts of attention. all the confrontation of beliefs that happens at this level, is confrontation of others' beliefs. you don't challenge yourself at all. so when no one's watching, it may be quite meaningless.

there is the second kind of social demands. i think these demands are made of us as members of society at large (or humanity if you will) as opposed to members of a certain social group. these demands have to do with stability of society. such as not trying to take the law into your own hands, or keeping in touch with your kin. i think it's actually lots of stuff like the second that is about building up a robust social support system to ensure reasonably well that nobody goes too berserk.

it's true that these expectations can be rejected too. there are people who manage to live quite happily and independently of their kin. (there are also some kin who deserve to be kicked out of the network!) then by all means, don't conform.

however, i'm a little wary of non-conformity to these expectations because while that may not threaten those who do not need these guidelines, who are wise, able &/or capable enough to live on their own terms, the potential for damage in terms of less able/wise/capable followers is tremendous.

the systems needed for stability are necessary in order to protect those who are not wise enough to intelligently reject these norms and who may get into trouble of a magnitude that affects not just them individually but also society as a whole. many children of the hippie generation suffered bitterly because of parents who thought they were being progressive by absolutely disrupting all existing social systems but just ended up being flaky and broke. today we have problems of adolescents going berserk and killing, school kids committing suicide because of stress and soaring rates of depression. i think they're all indicative of system failure. (how much more unstable can a society get?!)

so am i advocating complete docility and conformity as a safe option? no. i just think there is a huge area between these two kinds of non-conformity, where non-conformity means challenging ourselves more than an audience (and is therefore more honest!), where rebellion is reasoned rather than attention-seeking. i rather think many of the madusar patis figured this one out pretty well. i know some in my clan who have seemed outwardly perfectly traditional, but have been very strong and progressive women.

the more i think about it, i think it would be fabulous to teach meaningful, questioned (as opposed to merely rejecting) rebellion as part of higher secondary schooling. we'd finally be giving people a chance to become sensible adults!

also on sthreeling



Anonymous IdeaSmith said...

The 'pick your battles' lesson? Unfortunately most of us get carried away in the thrills that accompany being a rebel without a cause. Insightful post.

6:00 am  
Blogger m. said...

ideasmith: thanks.

8:43 pm  
Anonymous eervv said...

interesting post.. i've recently started considering taking a chance that may break me away from my kin. Not sure if this rebellion is 'wise' yet. How do I figure out if I need the protection society is willing to provide me if I only follow its guidelines? =)

7:08 pm  
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