One of the most psychologically attractive properties of conformity to social norms are the fruits such conformity brings. The fruits are typically a sense of belonging, acceptance by one’s peers and one’s society at large, and the affirmation and confidence that one’s life is not vulnerable to constant scrutiny and denial.
This is not to assume that to obey social norms is akin to some consumer-choice-style exercise of freedom, where the unencumbered self freely and rationally chooses to obey only those norms which promise certain psychological and other benefits. That is a naively simplistic picture of human motivation, ignoring the extent to which our subjectivity is profoundly shaped – indeed, constituted – by all manner of influences around us which saturate our culture and society. However, it does remain the case that obedience to social norms is typically associated with benefits of tranquillity and with the avoidance of risks. As Michael Warner writes, the refusal to confirm carries with it certain psychological and social costs – and chief among these, quite plausibly, is being vulnerable to ‘trouble’. There is no tranquillity for those who do not conform.
A ‘social norm’ is a code, explicitly or implicitly stated or observed, that governs how individuals and groups think or act. And the behaviour that most successfully manifests the fulfilment of a norm is rendered ‘normal’. To illustrate, take the example of intimate coupledom. There is a social norm pertaining to romantic attachment that individuals should enter coupledom. That is, they should romantically and sexually associate with one and only one partner at any given time – and refusal to do so represents some violation of this norm, and thus the inability to live a normal life in relation to romantic attachment. Those who form romantic attachments that involve three or more partners are in some way ‘deviant’ by virtue of their failing to conform to the norm of intimate coupledom. Moreover, that failure to conform to the specified social norm is typically put down to a deliberate refusal, an act of choice on the part of the agent concerned. Not only does the individual fail, but she fails intentionally. Though this is not exhaustive of all cases of failure to conform to a norm, it is nonetheless the paradigmatic way of talking in popular and academic contexts about the failure to successfully conform.
There are risks attached with failure to conform to social norms. These risks, quite plausibly, operate on a spectrum: they range from minor exclusion from some activity all the way through to vulnerability to violence, physical assault, and death. Judith Butler cites the example of an 18 year old man from Maine, reported by press as having walked with a distinctively feminine ‘swish’. One day, his walk was interrupted by three strangers who attacked and murdered him. This constitutes a powerful illustration of how someone’s failure to conform to social norms – in this case the norms of gendered bodily comportment – can result in serious risks, including physical violence or death. Indeed, Butler’s attempt to explain why these strangers sought to eradicate the possibility of that person ever walking again appeals to a deep terror implicit in our anxieties that everyone, including ourselves, conform to established norms pertaining to gendered practices: failure to conform means death.
Just as failure to conform can give rise to terror for those who do not obey social norms, so conformity can give rise to benefits of tranquillity. Take the gay and lesbian (though not necessarily trans* or queer) community of the USA. As John Corvino argues for the US case, the gay male and lesbian community has changed its collective politics in the past 25 years. Roughly, in the late-1980s and early-1990s, gay men and lesbians pursued a ‘leave us alone politics’ which centred on an end to state-endorsed discrimination. Conversely, today’s gay men and lesbians pursue an ‘include us politics’ which centres on inclusion within institutions that queer activists from the 1970s onwards often labelled ‘conservative’ such as marriage and the military. To be clear, this is not exhaustive of all gay men and lesbians in the US, though it is quite plausibly the majority political position. And there is a rough parallel to draw between gay men and lesbians in the USA during this period and the same demographic in the UK (and, if you like, other countries like Canada, South Africa, Germany – though, for reasons of scope, this article focuses just on the UK-USA comparison). The natural question in the face of these observations is: why the shift towards conformity?
The answer that has received the most treatment in literature by both academics and activists on the question of the so-called ‘de-radicalisation’ of gay and lesbian politics in the USA and the UK is that individual gay men and lesbians, as well as many political bodies claiming to represent these individuals, have recognised the benefits of conforming to social norms surrounding domesticity and citizenship. Marriage brings with it the affirmation by one’s society that one’s relationship is legitimate. And it invites inclusion within an institution long-heralded as the great bastion of romantic success. On the contrary, failure to conform threatens to bring a whole host of risks. Your wealth will not necessarily be passed on to your lover; your oppositional attitude towards the mainstream endorsements of many institutions and cultural practices can be exhausting and difficult to sustain.
There is a psychologically compelling case to be made, then, for swapping the picket line for the picket fence. Conformity will enable you to lead a quieter life, away from the precariousness and unpredictability that comes with activism, or living queerly, or living in a way other than how the majority lives. Conformity allows for a certain peaceable tranquillity, safe in the knowledge that one’s practices and ways of living are socially affirmed. Gay married couples in the UK might have the occasional bigot to contend with, but the police will not be breaking up their relationship any time soon, and nor will the government. They can rest peacefully in their homes, knowing that they have successfully conformed to – or, more cynically, mimicked – an established norm pertaining to domesticity and citizenship.
It might be objected that the argument of this essay overestimates the extent to which any agent can be accurately said to ‘choose’ conformity to a given social norm. Instead, there are many factors beyond one’s immediate control constraining the ability to freely choose. These include, though are not exhausted by: genetics, brain chemistry, upbringing, and national culture. Whatever the thesis of ‘social construction’ entails, one plausible reading is that human agents do not really exist free-floating from the societies in which they live and navigate and have their being. It follows, then, that individuals are not motivated to conform to norms out of the desire for tranquillity. Indeed, they are not strictly ‘motivated’ at all; they conform because they are determined or compelled to do so. So, the thesis that conformity to norms is associated with any attractiveness of tranquillity is false, since agents do not choose to conform because they desire to lead tranquil, comfortable lives.
This objection carries little force. It can be conceded that the notion of an unencumbered, freely choosing self is a myth. But this does nothing to undermine the thought that when agents conform to norms, they do so partly out of some desire for tranquillity. There may be powerful reasons to believe that our choice to conform or not conform is severely diminished, but there is no proof that such choice is entirely absent. Social construction does not do away with any sense of freedom to choose or freedom to act, and it is a consequence of sloppy thinking to assume that accepting social construction entails the abolition of the possibility of human choice.
What is more, all that is required for the argument of this essay to obtain is that the desire for tranquillity sometimes plays a role in moving agents to conform to social norms. This is a much weaker, and much more defensible, claim than that desire for tranquillity sufficiently explains all cases of conformity. And any natural reading of the thesis that identities or choices or contexts of choice are ‘socially constructed’ does not entail the falsehood of the claim that the desire for tranquillity sometimes plays a role in moving agents to conform to social norms. On the contrary, social construction might help to explain why agents might be motivated by a desire for tranquillity. After all, norms are social constructions if anything is, and adherence to them enables the agent to be conceived of as ‘normal’, which itself carries associations of tranquillity, belonging, and other benefits. Far from threatening my thesis, it would seem that social construction can support my thesis by offering a framework for making sense of the thought that social norms generate benefits for those who conform to them.
A second putative objection runs as follows: whilst it may be true that when agents conform to norms, they do so partly out of some desire for tranquillity, this does not make conforming agents worthy of blame. There are at least two distinct ways of running this objection. On the one hand, it could mean that nothing evaluative follows if my thesis is true. So, it is just a descriptive thesis, and it is silent about the question of whether agents who conform should be condemned, or whether the agents who fail to conform should be condemned. On the other hand, it could mean that we should not condemn those who fail to conform since, after all, these agents are only seeking to lead a quiet life, and that is a legitimate aspiration if anything is. So long as nobody else is involuntarily harmed, then there is nothing wrong with conforming to social norms.
The first reading of the objection is true, given a strict interpretation of what is meant by ‘follows’. To be sure, no evaluative judgement strictly follows in the sense of being logically determined by the truth of my thesis. But still it is perfectly consistent with the truth of my thesis that one is at liberty to make evaluative judgements about those agents who do or do not conform to social norms.
The second reading is more controversial. Quite plausibly, there are good reasons for condemning those who conform to social norms. For reasons of scope, one such good reason is motivated here. Those agents who conform to social norms maintain those norms since, by accepting and obeying the power of those norms to guide action, they fail to challenge those norms. And with those norms going unchallenged, agents who fail to conform to the norms continue to be disciplined and punished. The moral, then, is that this argument is too quick to let the conformists of the hook by saying that the aspiration to lead a quiet, tranquil life is a justified one and nobody else is harmed. In most cases, someone is harmed: namely, those who continue to be punished for failing to conform. That might in part be the free choice of those non-conforming agents, but that does not undermine the thought that the consequences of the conformists’ actions don’t end with themselves. Rather, whenever an agent conforms to a norm, they are implicitly endorsing that norm through failing to challenge it.
There are rich insights to be garnered from thinking about social norms, and about the related though distinct notion of ‘social construction’ (a tricky notion if anything is), in relation to the dichotomy of terror and tranquillity. This essay has argued that when agents conform to norms, they do so partly out of some desire for tranquillity. This has not been claimed as a global thesis about all instances of conformity to social norms, but rather as a local one. As a local thesis, it is plausible; part of the reason why we conform so often and so unfailingly is out of the desire for tranquillity. There is no rest for the wicked, and sometimes we just want belonging, acceptance, and a quiet life. Resistance is too demanding, too risky, and it can be a terrifying prospect.
Image: Michelle Tribe
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