While living in a socially interactive environment, do individuals make decisions freely, based on personal norms OR do they, intentionally or unintentionally, get into consideration what “others” think, in order to follow social norms?
I think that my slightly overweight friend would not top her beauty if she was slimmer; then why am I feeling the need to lose weight myself? I keep my mother’s closet from 80’s in the hopes that the fashion will recur someday; what stops me from putting them on today? In my opinion, getting married is not a wise decision if cohabitation is an option; but why do I feel like my relationship would be incomplete if I did not get married indeed? These questions may seem off topic and out of place; however, these are the mild side effects of engaging in social interactions. In this essay, I will discuss more severe and malignant influences of society in our personal decisions. Having a social identity requires fitting into some social norms to an extent. Norms are, as described in the Macmillan English Dictionary, “standards of behavior that are accepted in a particular society” (p. 948). In other words, norms are unwritten laws of societies. What happens when an individual goes awry? My answer is, that individual gets into an internal conflict between personal norms and the norms of the society. I will examine these struggles by using literature in my essay.
Struggles of individuals and of societies always leak into literature; and so the struggle of complying with norms also did. From Brent Staples’ recount of personal experiences in Black Men and Public Space as he was subjected to discrimination and racism, to Shirley Jackson’s portrayal of Tessie Hutchinson as an outcast of the imaginary village in The Lottery, it is evident that writers also dealt with the struggle of complying with norms. Conception of norms, and furthermore social identities, should also be referred to while discussing George Orwell’s narration of the identity struggles of a British police officer in Burma, and Ralph Wedgwood’s depiction of the gay and lesbian society which gave a fight for gaining the right to participate in the institution of marriage in 1997. Looking at these examples, it can be concluded that norms are effective in every aspect of social life. From race to traditionalism, from ethnicity to gender issues, norms cannot be overlooked because they are major components of our actions.
Our decisions are affected by two major norms in our lives: our own norms and the norms of the society. When one is in a decision making process, these norms affect the decision in uneven proportions in different cases. Regarding social standings for example, like deciding on how to behave or what to say in public, the society’s norms affect the decision more than one’s own norms. A decision of this sort is made by the British police officer in Burma in George Orwell’s short story Shooting an Elephant. The officer, hated by the Burmese people of the British colony of Burma, gets obliged to making a decision in front of these people. The decision is between whether or not shooting a tame elephant which has no interest in getting any harm done before his sahib shows up to collect him. “I had no intention of shooting the elephant – I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary” the officer says (Orwell, 1936). However, as he and the Burmese crowd behind him approaches the field where the elephant is pasturing, the expectation of the natives for seeing an elephant shot makes him uneasy. Furthermore, he clearly states that to his own judgment, “it would be murder to shoot him”; but then again, he feels the power of the majority, the natives, on his actions: “in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” (Orwell, 1936). Thus, there are two aspects to his decision: his own opinion and the expectancy of the natives. He feels uneasy, because he feels...
References: Mayor, M. (2002). Macmillan English Dictionary (p. 948, 5th Ed.). China.
Orwell, G. (1950). “Shooting and Elephant” in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Stephenson, G. R. (1967). “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys" in Progress in Primatolog. Stuttgart: Fischer.
Jackson, S. (1976). “The Lottery” in The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Macmillan.
Staples, B. (1986). “Black Men and Public Space” Ms September.
Wedgewood, R. (1997) “What Are We Fighting For?” Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. November-December No: 6.
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