Friday, October 04, 2013

The Individual and the Society, part 1

One way of defining adolescence is the age when one does not understand the social contract.

The social sphere grades people with “reputation”.  In adolescence, one cares little for reputation.  Perhaps because one’s journey in life thus far, having been under the shelter of one’s parents, has been mostly independent of social judgment.  One hasn’t had to take up a job, one hasn’t had to take a large loan, one hasn’t had to negotiate a business agreement or a partnership, one hasn’t had to look for a spouse, and so on.

Life during adolescence, for most of the demographic which is reading this blog article, is happy-go-lucky.

It would be a grave error, and a grotesque prolonging of one’s adolescence, if one continues to regard with disdain the concept of “reputation” when one is expected to act as an adult.  One will not detect the consequences before it is too late.  Reputation is not something that can be rebuilt easily.

A man or a woman who behaves as if social morality and taboos are hogwash will be treated as hogs by the society.

Social morality sometimes is out of date, and cultural evolution certainly claims its martyrs.  My point is not that social morality must be upheld at all costs, but that to disregard it as of no concern will usually lead to consequences.  An adult rebel will consider the prevailing morality, and choose his actions carefully, evaluating the consequences.  An adult rebel will be cognizant of, and reconciled with, the fact that he/she may lose his reputation.

An adolescent, on the other hand, is merely oblivious to society.  An adolescent exists in a narcissistic bubble in which the adults and the society are either seen as villains who repress one’s freedom and autonomy, or as beings of no concern.

In a traditional society, reputation matters much more than in a modern one.  In a modern setting, morality is generally assumed to be a private matter, except when the society decides that it isn’t (ref the concept of a “sex offender registry” in many first world countries).  It is inconceivable that a woman in New York city would be refused a rental apartment because she has been married four times.

In a modern setting, people might think that reputation matters little because the society, in day to day life, does not exist anymore.  There is anonymity between apartment neighbors.  Nobody cares about you as long as you mind your own business.

But as soon as you expect others to trust you as a person, reputation in various forms enters the picture.  In the first world, one’s entire financial/credit history is immediately available.  A prospective employer looks at one’s job history and asks for references.  A prospective spouse would be curious about one’s past relationships and how they began and ended.  A bank would look at one’s finances before extending a loan.  And there is of course Google.

It is true that one can no longer count on neighborhood gossip to find out more about a person.  But since the need to have a basis of trust remains, other ways and institutions have now replaced the “word-of-mouth” narratives that exist in traditional societies.

There are many reasons why someone will proffer the advice of “F*&^ society, do your own thing”.  Almost always, the reasons will be found to be rooted in some psychopathology which blames the society for something wrong in one’s life and very rarely for doing something creative and constructive.  A disdain towards society is usually symptomatic of being bitter.

Think of someone who is popular (as opposed to being merely famous or a celebrity) and liked by other people, versus someone who is generally held as a bad example.  It will be usually found that the popular person did do many things right (and not just in a conformist way), and that the unpopular person did hurt other people (and not just as a constructive rebel).

There do exist examples of social boycotts, and worse, targeting people who expressed a heretical idea or chose to live in a way which challenged a despotic authority.  I think the reasons for a rebellion are important to consider if one is to stand in opposition to a society.  And that a rebellion must first comprehend the reasons for the prevailing norm.

Social approval opens doors to opportunities and lasting change, while a bad reputation and living-as-an-island makes other people apprehensive of one’s association.  To disregard this simple fact represents, to me, a defect in one’s journey to adulthood.

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