Have you ever wanted to wear something but were afraid of how others might judge you for doing so? Have you ever had an idea that was unpopular and so you kept it to yourself for fear of being socially outcast? Have you ever wanted to love someone but knew that society would never accept your relationship? If so, then you, like all of us, has felt the pressure of conforming to social norms.
Social norms are the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that society expects of us if we are to “fit in”. They can serve positive functions – like helping to maintain social order and provide social stability – but they can also serve negative functions – like constraining our sense of identity and self-expression. The balance between feeling control over one’s own life while still adhering to the sometimes oppressive nature of social expectations can be a delicate balancing act that is likely to leave us all in a state of confusion or despair at some point or another.
Some forms of social control are imposed for positive reasons. The government, for example, does so to help provide for the public safety. Religion provides a moral framework and can be a valuable blueprint for how to live our lives. The education system can socialize us into the values and norms of our society. All of this can be good. But all of this can also be bad if we do not personally fit the mold for what each of those institutions expects of us. The result can be frustration, anxiety, and a sense of limitation.
It is important to note that the first step in gaining a greater sense of control over our own lives, even in the face of outside systems of control, is to understand that we can. We absolutely can. One of the most critical things that keeps most of us from feeling in control is the fear of social rejection and isolation. We are afraid that if we express who we really are, what we really think, or how we really feel, and any of those go against the social norms, then we will be labeled as deviant and outcast. This fear of social rejection can be a powerful one.
Some of the greatest figures in history, however, have been social outcasts at one point or another.Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and nearly all of the great religious prophets had to face the barriers imposed by society in order to take control of their own lives and have the strength to change the world. All were deemed as “deviant” in their early years yet all had tremendous positive impacts on the societies around them and the world at large.
A sociologist will tell you that nothing is inherently good or inherently bad. Whether something is seen as right or wrong is determined entirely by the who, the what, the where, and the when of the situation. There are no universals of either social acceptance or rejection among the world’s societies. The prospect that there is no normal, no inherent right, and no perfect mold for which to strive might seem unsettling at first but it can, in fact, be quite liberating. If there is no normal, then there is no abnormal. If there is no inherent right, then there is no inherent wrong (perhaps with a few exceptions). If there is no perfect mold then there is no reason we can’t be happy with who we are.
One key to feeling liberated from social pressure is to remember that everyone is deviant somewhere and no one is deviant everywhere. Non-Muslims can face challenges in Egypt but Muslims can face challenges in much of Western Europe. Homosexuals are routinely arrested (or worse) in many countries of the world and yet same-sex marriage is legal in a growing number of other countries. Wearing a veil can make you an insider, or an outsider, depending on where you are and who you are around. Being thin can bring social rewards in some places while being voluptuous is socially preferred in others. Nearly every aspect of our identities is accepted in some place and treated with suspicion in others.
Another important element in feeling more in control of our own lives is to allow others greater control of their own. If we want to enjoy the freedom of personal control and expression, then the first thing we must do is be willing to grant the same privilege to those around us. If we take a “live and let live” attitude to the personal expression of others, then we ourselves we will be let to live. The key to personal liberation lies first and foremost in liberating others.
So does all of the above mean that we need to live in an anarchist society with no rules and regulations? Or that we should turn a blind eye when someone is causing harm to others believing it is their right to do so? Or that institutions of social control are all negative and oppressive factors in our lives? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that we should be more aware of what social control is, why it is, and how we can utilize it as a key to personal growth rather than a tool of social oppression.
Dr. Michael Ryan
Assistant Professor of Sociology
The American University In Cairo