Egghead --> Society

Society’s Expectations And Individuality. Can the Two Coexist?

by Kirill Sakharov

Why don’t executives, during a board meeting, yell at the top of their lungs how stupid their boss is? Why doesn’t a mother steal food for her children so she could have money left to buy some things that cannot be stolen, like toys. Why can’t all pedestrians walk around Boston shirtless during those hundred humidity, hundred degree-e-days?s?
In every society, the individuals that compose that society are expected to follow certain principles. Every society follows the idea of a social contract to some extent, so in every society the individual gives up certain rights and takes up certain responsibilities for the betterment of the society. This paper will investigate the extent with which society controls the individual’s decisions and freedom, the cultural differences between societies and their expectations, and the philosophic concept of good or bad too much control can do.

Many different genres deal with similar questions. Many philosophies originated by asking the same question and not getting a satisfactory answer. Existentialism is one such philosophy, because it bases its main few principles on not having any principles and not letting society make too many decisions for the individual. What would happen, however, if everyone took up the same philosophy. Interestingly enough, that question is the measuring stick for a good or bad act in a society. The question we are told to ask ourselves by disciplinaries when we do something “wrong” is “what would your world be like if everyone did as you just did?” Well according to that measuring stick, existentialism is “bad”, since too many people would do as they felt like and too few people would act for the betterment of society. Many people employed this philosophy of existentialism, and done so successfully, proving that society’s standards are not the “end all, be all” to the achievement of happiness for an individual and the well being and self preservation of society.

It is a very interesting question that seems to work so well in determining the actions of so many people as “good” or “bad”. “What if everyone else did the same thing?” It is a blatant question regarding conformity. What if everyone conforms to my way of life? Why do we need to keep asking ourselves that if we are to preserve society as we seem it. Well, mostly because society’s members can do nothing but conform, and to count on conformity is the same as counting on the sun to rise every morning. There is also a golden rule that society gives us: “Do unto others as you would like to be done unto yourself.” It once again echoes conformity, for you are basically told to do as others should do. You are told to do what is easiest to conform to. Can there be a better question? Can there be a better rule? Hopefully, yes.s.s.

A world ruled by conformity and “equality” to the point that life is extremely dull is the world imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in “Harrison Bergeron.” In this short story, Vonnegut makes his commentary about communism and the idea that in order for everyone to be equal, people with above minimal abilities would have to be handicapped in order to bring their abilities to a standard minimum. George Harrison, the father of the genius Harrison explains to his wife why he cannot take his handicaps off, “’If I tried to get away with it,’ said George, ‘then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?’”(Vonnegut) Harrison tries to be the full person he could be however, by taking his handicaps off and telling everyone else to do so as well. He proclaims himself emperor and without his handicaps performs feats that are extraordinary. However, during demonstration of his full strength and genius, the Handicapper General walks in and shoots him for doing nothing else but being an individual. The story points out a world where individuals do everything for the greater good of society, and not themselves. Another fictional world that illustrates the ill effects of society being too strong and the individual being too unimportant is the world of the novel 1984.

A world that has been taken over by conformity is painted in George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984. It is a world where the “essential” question cannot be asked, for there no choices to be made, and no decisions to ponder. Society makes all the decisions for its members. In the world painted in 1984, Orwell shows the effects of communism’s total spread over the world. It shows the bleak world, where “The Party” controls every aspect of the lives of the individuals that reside in Oceania, one of three parts of the world. The Ministry of Truth controls what people know, the Ministry of Love enforces the Party’s beliefs, Ministry of Peace coordinates the war efforts, and Ministry of Plenty tries to provide for the citizens. Other than the proletarians, or “proles”, psychological control is in effect and the thoughts and actions of the Outer and Inner Circle of the party are constantly monitored and if need be, altered by the Party. The plot centers around Winston Smith, an Outer Circle resident, and his attempt at living the full life as an individual by trying to escape the totalitarian, anti-individualistic control of the Party, thinking his own ideas and falling in love. Winston ultimately fails, and is ultimately tortured into conformity and the belief of self-unimportance.

The way Winston fails is symbolic. Winston trusts O’Brien, a Party member who Winston believes belongs to the Brotherhood, a rebellion group in Oceania. O’Brien, turns out to be a full fledged Party member, completely brainwashed into fully complying with the Party’s principles. O’Brien tortures in such a manner that his ultimate sense of individuality, his sense of self preservation makes him wish for the harm of another in return for his own safety. O’Brien explains the Party’s philosophies as well as Winston crime well during these tortures, , , ,
“'On the contrary,' he said, 'you have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.’”(Orwell)
Winston’s “sanity” is ultimately achieved through the torture. After such a break down, Winston cannot look at himself as a competent individual and has no choice but to succumb to be just a cog in the wheel of the Party.

The Party’s motto, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” represents many aspects of how Winston and every other man who tries to over come the party will be defeated. It is the prime example of the psychological control that the Party used to manipulate the people. It represents the assumptions that the Party forces people to make, even though they make not be logical. It is the case in every society, for if the majority can me convinced of something the informative conformity of the individual will take effect and people can be convinced of the most illogical things.

The most striking quotation from the book 1984 is “BIG BROHER IS WATCHING YOU.” That quote represents the constant glare society has on the individual and the constant pressure to abide by its rules. Big Brother, by the end of the book, is proven not to exist, and only to stand as a symbol for the Party. In any case, in every society some figurative form of Big Brother always exists, in some medium or the other, and he is always watching, whether he is there is the form of pedestrians walking down the street making sure you don’t take your shirt off and start yelling profanities, or in the form of secret service agents making sure that nobody takes a nap in the lawn of the White House.

In this novel, Orwell is successful in illustrating the nightmarish consequences of the complete loss of individuality and overwhelming control of society in a fictional future world. The novel, however, was written as a commentary on events happening at the time, mainly on the Soviet Union and socialism. One person who lived in a relatively similar world is Leonid Sakharov. Leonid agreed to conduct an interview discussing his life in the society of the USSR and its similarities and contrasts to the societies he saw in n n n 1984 and the modern day US.

Leonid is my father, and he lived for a great deal of his 53 year old life living in the communist society of the Soviet Union. Leonid’s first remark, even after intentions on drawing the conversation towards the relationship between the communist society he lived in and the society portrayed in 1984, was about the great similarities between Soviet Union’s society and the society he lives in currently. The greatest similarity he pointed to was the “general belief of the God/Lenin given right to protection and freedom, even those things were not completely guaranteed.” He was talking about the assumptions that individuals made about their societies, and the leadership of their respective societies always doing the right thing. He said that in both cases the average individual trusted and gave up too much to the societies to which he belonged. In return, Leonid believed that both societies did not give enough in return. He mentioned the social contract he signed with society, saying that he would not break the law because that would violate his contract, but on the flipside, society does not always deliver to the best of its abilities back to the individual. Both the USSR and the US, according to Leonid, do not see this problem and assume that society cannot but live up to its bargain in the social contract. In return, society has to guarantee certain freedoms to the individual, like the freedom given to someone by safety, or the freedom of speech. Thus to an extent the individual gives up some of his individuality to have other, defined means of pursuing his individuality guaranteed by society. In 1984 Winston is ultimately broken down by taking away his freedom and safety that society is supposed to guarantee, and the book shows that without those, he is himself incompetent as an individual, because he needs them to be an individual himself. Both US and USSR assumed that those means really were guaranteed, when in reality, they are not. Leonid mentioned one other person who did not see society giving back as much as it could. This fictional character, Martin Eden, is ultimately dissatisfied with his society because it does not value individuality, and for that reason commits suicide.

Martin Eden is a novel written by Jack London that follows the life changing experience of Martin Eden as he undergoes changes in social class, falls in love, and becomes famous only to see the conforming and unbalanced nature of the society around him. Martin starts the story off as a poor sailor who is fascinated by literature. An accident lets him meet an upper class family. This family embraces Martin and becomes his gateway to the upper class. On his way up he embraces the love of a special lady from that family who not only acts as his love, but also his tutor, honing his writing skills and his philosophical arguments. Martin sees the upper class as being infinitely more intelligent and better in every single way than the lower class in which he resides. They seem like gods to him to start out, with their “grace” and education. His life takes a turn for the better as he ascends the social ladder, and the individuals he surrounds himself with also seem to be continuously happier. Martin is able to pursue his true passion for writing as his financial situation gets better. As Martin engulfs himself in this one true passion, his monetary situation gets worse and worse as does his health. He continues writing however, without stop, spending days on end writing essays and stories. His social life takes a hit as his love and the family that brought him along into the upper echelons of society abandons him. Martin tries to make money by sending these essays to publicists and magazines. He is always sent off and rejected by these enterprises, but he keeps on writing. Finally, Martin writes his two final works, a novel and an essay. Both of them are a huge hit and immediately everything turns for the better in the life of Martin Eden. Everybody who used to have a bad disposition towards him has it completely reversed and all the essays and stories he sent to publishers and magazines prior to making a hit are now being accepted and given high critical praise. This second sudden rise in the life of Martin Eden makes h im cautious of the society that surrounds him. The sudden change of opinion around him only came from the fact that others liked him and his work. The fact that people that pretended to like him as an individual did not really like him and instead just conformed to the popular opinion of him made him realize that others could never appreciate him as an individual for he himself did not change from the time he was in rags trying to write quality stories to the time he became rich and famous. The fact that people did appreciate was the fact that everyone else enjoyed his work and everyone else had a good opinion of him, all of it not involving him. This epiphany forces Martin into an extremely somber mood and he decides to escape the world by committing suicide.

Martin best expresses his displeasure with society during a conversation with Lizzie, a minor character whose disposition towards Martin significantly changes after he becomes famous. “…’I could die for you! I could die for you!’-Lizzie’s words were ringing in his ears.

‘Why didn’t you dare it before?’ he asked harshly. ‘When I was starving? When I was just as I am now, as a man, as an artist, the same Martin Eden? That’s the question I’ve been propounding myself for many a day- not concerning you merely, but concerning everybody. You see I have not changed, though my sudden apparent appreciation in value compels me constantly to reassure myself on that point. I’ve got the same flesh on my bones, the same ten fingers and toes. I am the same…I haven’t even made one new generalization on literature or philosophy. I am personally of the same value that I was when nobody wanted me. And what is puzzling me is why they want me now. Surely they don’t want me for myself, for myself is the same old self they did not want. Then they must want me for the something else, for something that is outside me, for something that is not I! Shall I tell you what that something is? It is for the recognition that I have received. That recognition is not I, It resides in the minds of others.’” (London 460)
Martin’s dilemma rests in the fact that society has no true appreciation of his individuality. People do not like him for who he is no matter if he fits the mold, like he did when he was famous, or when he is famous. That leads him to believe that being an individual is never something he should strive for. If he cannot strive to be an individual, then what can he strive for? Being part of the society and fitting the mold. Martin decides that not living at all is the better option and ends his own life. Martin is not the only famous fictional character to commit suicide because individuality was forbidden for him. Martin Eden focused on modern society and how, with all its freedoms, it can still suffocate an individual with conformity.

Neal, a character out of Dead Poets Society, is another example of the ill effects of the simple pressures that society applies on people daily. Neal, in the movie, goes to a prep school where the rules are strictly enforced, everybody follows the status quo, and individuality is discouraged. The movie shows the arrival of a new English teacher, Mr. Keating as his influence on the students of the prep school, especially Neal. Neal lives under strict control of his father, who has already planned out a life of superficial happiness for Neal. Under his father’s guidance, Neal is to become a doctor and make a great deal of money. Neil, however has a different passion, which is acting. Mr. Keating influence pushes Neil into action, through Keating’s “Carpe Diem” encouragements and pushes on Neal to be his own person. The lessons of anti conformity are discouraged by the school, but they still manage to have an effect on Neil, who decides to still star in the play as the ultimate expression of his individuality, and does so against his father’s will. As Neil’s father finds out, he becomes furious and immediately takes action to have Neil transferred to military school where Neil will have no option but to pursue the medical education his father planned out for him. Between the two options of being dead and not being an individual Neil sees practically no difference, so he decides to end his life, just as Martin Eden does. All of the aforementioned works center around society having a too strong of a grasp on the individuals’ lives and the negative effects that ensue. The situation described in Dead Poets Society is the one most identifiable with everyday life. Even though the social pressures shown in the movie are extreme, those pressures are still molded after situations individuals within society have to go through during their everyday lives. It is when society expects one thing, but you would rather do another.

When society expects too much out of an individual, going beyond what is comfortable, beyond maybe the agreement made in the social contract, beyond the point when society makes too many decisions for the individual, including thoughts like in 1984, or career paths like in Dead Poet Society, what is the individual to do? In 1984 the individual is forced to conform to the thoughts and beliefs of the Party, a type of absolute conformity and control society should never be able to enforce. In both Martin Eden and Dead Poets Society the individual commits suicide instead of conforming. No other choices seem to appear anytime. It is either conformity, or if that is impossible to bear, then death. Unlike what is portrayed in these three works of literature, is there a middle ground, or an escape from conformity not involving death?
I conducted an interview with an individual who I thought had found such a middle ground: Daniel Reedy. Dan manages the balance of self happiness and the necessity of conformity very well, while always managing to put happiness foremost. Dan first managed to point out the social norms and pressures that he feels stand between him and his individuality,
“[Society] expects us to be materialistic, and to desire certain "nice" things... It expects us to contribute something to it, through volunteering or providing a service to people.... It expects us to abide by certain rules, or laws... it expects us to behave in a certain manner, essentially as to make each individual in society individual; we can’t run down the street screaming or walk across government center shirtless or do anything to attract genuine attention to ourselves... It expects us to grow into respectable adults, find a certain career, and pursue that career, make money, and raise a family, essentially following a specific progression of development determined by society.”
Dan lists all these things as the conditions we take upon ourselves when we tacitly sign the social contract. Some of the things he lists however, such as the specific progression of development, are not part of the social contract, since all the social contract requires is the abidance by the laws and doing unto others as you would like to be done unto yourself. The social contract never tries to tell the individual what course to take in life. But that specific progression of development is in fact there and most people abide by it. That specific progression illustrates a definite example of social pressure; it goes beyond what should be expected of the individual.

Dan also had commentary on social expectations in America, having a few points of comparison from his travels to third world countries. He noted that while the laws of the United States might give more freedom, the social norms and individuality that society allowed the people was much less. The media is one reason for this, for most everyone is fed television broadcasts everyday, and what the average person sees on the television set determines much of his opinion. If the programs that everyone watches do not vary greatly, then TV also breeds a kind of conformity. A conformity and invisibility that people seem to welcome in America, according to Dan. In other countries he has been,
“People don’t feel the same need to conform as much. Perhaps, for whatever reason, people seemed to be more visible in these places. This could be partly because people spend more time outside, as the weather is hot and houses are small and oppressive. This makes the individual more apparent, as opposed to general ideas regarding what society is and stereotypes regarding individuals within society.”
Another point that Dan made was that the amount of protest in America is a fair indicator of the satisfaction of just conforming and being invisible. “You can also look at the level of political activism in America as opposed to elsewhere, and it seems that the average American simply agrees with the government's actions, not out of any true conviction, but because they expect that the government would make the correct decisions. Even in Europe, which is similar to America in many ways, activism is far more prominent. During the beginnings of the Iraq war, there were marches of hundreds of thousands in huge American cities, but millions marched in Rome and London, though these places were far less affected by the war.” This relatively weak voice of the protester in the US does demonstrate either the distractions of the American life, or the general satisfaction of fitting in and conforming. Dan, himself, ignored the pressures of society when he decided to write graffiti.

Dan, in his interview, also discussed a personal event in his life, a recently discovered habit of writing graffiti, and the reasons for it. Dan explains the reason for doing it quite eloquently,
“Originally, I did it because it was something fun to do. The very fact that it is illegal was what made it exciting, while I could see little harm in writing on the walls. As I continued to do graffiti, however, it became a way to become more visible, to find some sort of anonymous recognition. The fact that people see graffiti on a wall means that they are forced to recognize the visibility of the individual who created the graffiti. I ensured that when I wrote my tag on the wall, I did it big enough to be seen, because the entire purpose was to attract attention. Within our society, and the framework in which we live, it is quite difficult to be seen as a real individual. Graffiti was also something different to do, something unique. Nobody expected me to do graffiti, but that only shows how limited the expectations society places on an individual are.”
Dan’s answer highlighted the friction and conflict between society and individuality. Dan felt his options to express himself as an individual were so limited graffiti became the most rational medium to do so. The fact that no mediums were readily apparent means what the society Dan lives in discourages such expressions for individuality, or else many different options would have been found.

Dan’s opinion to the reason why the graffiti was so negatively received and why the general opinion of him lowered after people found out about it was well stated as well.

“I think many people took a negative stance on it because they consider writing on public property to be immoral. This is interesting, because it seems that older people take this view, while many younger people see nothing wrong with writing on public property. Others may have taken a negative stance because it is not allowed. This, however, just shows a blind acceptance of the rules without analyzing why they exist as such. Rules without a just basis have no legitimacy, and should not exist. Finally, some people disliked the graffiti because they didn’t appreciate the way it looked. To some people, graffiti is a type of art, while to others it is a kind of abomination. Graffiti in the halls is apparently contrary to the impression of the school the administration would like to present to the outside world, as though the outside world is actually judging our school based upon this aesthetic quality.”
Again Dan’s answer highlighted the interaction between individuality and society. Social norms and pressures molded outside opinions on graffiti and on Dan himself, providing mostly everyone the same negative opinion that is to be assumed on the topic of graffiti. Just because graffiti is illegal or outside social norms people label it as “bad.” It is ironic because graffiti is an attempt at individual expression and a label is automatically placed on it.

Submitted at Jul. 6, 2005; 14:47


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