Self Versus Society– An Endless Battle

It is a difficult mental space to be in when one finds one’s inner ethos at contradiction with that of society. Whether offending people for the sake of flag-bearing one’s staunch personal ethos is worth it, is a question one asks oneself quite often in this millennium. In our willful youth and student lives we are charmed by the newfound mental possibilities of individualism as a thought paradigm and this dilemma seldom comes to our minds. But as we get older, as we rely more on connections in the world to take us places, the more conscious we are of making everybody happy. The backbone of “networking” is keeping up relationships even if our inner voice doesn’t want us to.

For some people, conforming to systemic norms is an obligation and not a choice. Many times our biography is written by things which are not on our hands and not created by our own volition. The feeling of larger power structures can be overwhelming when their power percolates down to dictating our daily behavior. Family, which is our primary group, molds and conditions us in myriad ways in exchange for the physical and emotional comforts. When personal and familial ideology clash, how do we make decisions? India is called a collectivist culture as social researchers feel Indians tend to choose familial ideology over personal ideology. On the other hand individualistic cultural ethos of Western societies have also led to a certain stereotyping in our image of them.

In India, this dilemma of what I call self versus society is amplified manifold. This is because of the dichotomy in the Indian “public” and “private’. India as a nation since independence tended to adopt western ideals in public life and relegated the private domain to preserve “Indian culture”. Young Indians who are employed or studying, tend to extend those Western values present in the public sphere in India to the private sphere of family, sexuality and intimacy as well. This is when one faces the wrath of normative structures in a society. Social systems have the power to coerce. Social systems act through individual actions but they are a force of their own which do not require individual action to preserve them.

21st century is rampant in its humanistic literature that puts an overemphasis on individual actions. Romanticising individualism is the characteristic of young people coming out of schools and colleges in India as well. Discourse analysts would say that this is because of consumer marketing propaganda that make individuals visualize themselves as an isolated individual in his/her consumption. However, if one adopts the system’s approach to looking at decision-making, the “volition” that individuals feel in making their choices are enlightened to be an illusion. Many times people feel they are making their own choices without realizing that their actions are influenced by larger power structures, whether implicitly or explicitly. Social systems lay out the path for least resistance for people.

Another clash in the self versus system comes in when there is a feeling of empowerment or mobility which is misplaced. The thing is that social systems, including institutions of education and employment, are systems of privilege. They are systems that privilege one kind of knowledge over the others. They are systems that privilege certain skill sets over others. Cultural capital refers to the non-material culture imparted to one based on one’s upbringing in a particular class, caste, ethnic and regional position. Systems of higher education and employment, although impartial in the face of it, are implicitly practicing discrimination by valuing skills like English or theoretical knowledge which people from a particular class background are implicitly imparted, over skills like farming or weaving, that are equally strenuous but are possessed by a different strata of society.

The point of this digression is to make the point that neither all success is personal nor all failure personal. Success is not individualistic success indicating a person to be outstanding in universal caliber. Success is success within the system. Success depends on the system that views certain evaluation criteria more important than others. Similarly, failure is also not individual failure. Failure is merely the failure to meet the evaluation criteria set up by the system.

The challenge of everyday life is to live in harmony with the institutions without developing cognitive dissonance to a level that it harms our mental peace. On the flipside of it, it is a challenge to be intuitive in our actions while not being labelled an anarchist. The space that society gives for individual volition is limited, however it most certainly exists and counts. Social change is a change in the social systems, in their evaluation criteria and in their guiding ideology. People herald social change. Individual divergences from the system, when cumulated in a large number of people, create the change in the system. In a way, people are and are not the system. A social system is the framework in which individuals reside. However at the same time a social system does not exist if people or society does not inhabit it and does not act in a daily pattern to renew its norms every single day. The question to ask is, are some people more important than others in a social system? The answer is yes. The people who are the creators of discourse are more important than those people who merely follow and endorse that systemic discourse through their actions. The creators of discourse are more often than not also in possession of resources that have to be distributed to a large mass and in monopoly of the political and economic power.

The point of philosophical contact where the theoretical construct of the system translates into a group of individuals is, in my opinion, division of labour. Division of labour is necessarily coercing people into different activities and the creators of discourse are able the peg labels of worth at these differences. Division of labour is a necessity in complex societies, this is an undisputed fact. However, attaching functional importance and consequently unequal rewards to different kinds of labour is a system of stratification and it is not a necessity, rather it is a way for some to consolidate and monopolize power.

As a middle class salaried person, I feel the biggest dilemma middle class is in is because of its position in the hierarchy of level of control over discourse creation. People in the middle rung who make livelihood out of their specialized tasks in the institutions like doctors, teachers, accountants, salaried employees, etc. are forced to perpetuate the system by acting according to its norms. This means that in order to earn their daily salary they have to act in accordance with the implicit and explicit normative system. Thus the system privileges some and disadvantages others. The position is a position of guilt where a middle class person is forever guilty of perpetuating systems of privilege by employing the unfair evaluation criteria while at the same time getting their privilege and daily livelihood from these systems themselves.

I do think that this disparity in strata according to rights and rewards is not something limited to modern industrial society, but it is much more amplified in modern industrial society than it was in agrarian societies, or hunter-gatherer societies because of the complexity of political and economic organization as well as the role of the internet and media. The sophistication in surveillance technology effectively translates into stricter control to assess whether people are acting in accordance with the rules (formal codes of conduct) and norms and mores (informal codes of conduct) and stricter penal and punitive action of social control for digressers.

There seems no way out of this dilemma of self versus society because as Aristotle said “Man is a social animal” and “he who does not live in society is either a devil or an angel”. If we must live in society we must battle the clash of our individual volition with the resistance from the power structures out of our control yet created by individuals only.

Picture Courtesy- Beneath the Crust

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