Conformity, Morality, and Dissonance

Something I inherited from my dad is a notion that there is nothing which I am incapable of (particularly if someone else out there is capable of it).  Regardless of the truthfulness of that notion, its existence in me does point to a deeply ingrained faith in willpower.  It also points at the fact that, on some level, I think a person can define themselves, which contradicts another belief I might hold on some level that people discover themselves.  What I want to get at here is this itch which has been bothering me.  If I am free to choose how I will be (a big if) then how do I make such a choice?  As an illustrative example, Sara and I have been adapting our food habits over time.  We’ve moved slowly from our origin (heavily processed foods from the local chain grocer) to our current ideal (food from local farms, in season, as natural as possible) and possibly beyond (perennials and/or edible weeds which grow with as little human input as possible).  Along the way there are invariants; for instance that dinner together is an important part of family life and that delicious flavors should be appreciated (and savored).  The act of changing over time (not just our behaviors but really even our tastes) in this way is a form of idealism.  Somehow we move towards actions which resonate within us as being right, even if that notion of right changes over time, and might not be pragmatic.  Maybe this is an act of ‘discovering’ our ideals while ‘creating’ our actions (in this case our eating habits) in the image of those ideals.  I’m OK with this resolution of the contradiction, one can discover your ideals and then choose what to do in light of those discoveries.  In fact, that resolution matches a concept I heard this summer, the idea that the best way to learn something is to alternate between reflection and action.  In this case the act of trying to match your ideal in behavior might then shape the next iteration of adjusting the ideal which then adjusts the way you act, and so on.

So we’ve now got the beginnings of a model for how someone might go about adjusting themselves over time.  Of course, in this model, the very act of change begins with a seed of dissonance.  Something about your actions must strike you, on some level, as inconsistent with the way you would want to be (otherwise things would likely go on as they were).  Even if you’re unaware of what’s inconsistent or that something is inconsistent there will be moments of recognition of the conflict.  This first recognition of dissonance, for me, is almost always associated with art.  Some narrative or museum piece or performance or lyric or phrase will stick with me because I recognize it as true and as a condemnation (even if it wasn’t intended that way).  This seed of conflict sparks off the process of discovering what preexisting ideals I might have (which, prior to any mindful adjustments, must be leftovers of childhood experience, cultural influences, etc.) and what behaviors I have that conflict with those preexisting ideals.

Now we are ready to face the next dilemma: social forces and what to do with your dissonance.  Let’s suppose that my default morality/ethics/sense of right and wrong comes from my parents, friends/peers, the culture I grew with, etc.  Then my desire to live in accordance with that morality might spring from, at some early stage, a  desire to fit in or be approved of.  I could imagine a young rebel with a well developed sense of right and wrong purposefully doing wrong in a noticeable way (I’ve done this more than once in my life).  Such an act might be a first step in deciding how internalized some moral might be, or an act of separating the act of doing good from the desire to be approved of, or deciding if the moral has practical implications.  This is the point at which  the model becomes more individualized.  That is to say that there is a hierarchy of importance in everyone, which guides their resolution of personal conflicts.  If person A finds clean counters to be extremely important on their internal cleanliness scale and empty trash cans to be less important and they find themselves with an unexpected guest, a cluttered counter, and a full trash can then they might clean the counter and leave the trash.  Not a great example, but when push comes to shove, that is when you are forced to make a choice between two things, then all else being equal you are likely to consult your own internal hierarchy of values.  Somethings will bother you more than others.  I intend to imply that morality, whatever that might mean, is something born out of social/cultural interaction, and the same forces which brought about the seeds of morality as children will bring about seeds of conformity as adults.  That is, a desire to be loved and accepted guides some of our behaviors, while there is also, on some level, a desire to have your actions resonate with your internal value structure and not cause you dissonance.  This conflict is inevitable.  We must all decide whether to live in accordance with our ideals or the ideals of our cultural environment.  When you sense a conflict you either make some sort of stand or you internalize the ideals of your cultural environment.  To bring back the food example, Sara and I have been eating vegetarian for a month now, based on the idea of not economically supporting factory farmed animals.  That decision causes social problems, it makes a stance which others might not agree with, thus, for us, we’ve been getting a little less comfort from the world at large.  We certainly haven’t formed perfect opinions yet, we just don’t have all of the facts, but the act of turning down a dish, is already enough to need facts in defense of this unsocial behavior (or to choose open minded or like minded dinner companions).  To turn down social acceptance, which is warm and comforting, for the sake of internal resonance requires willpower/confidence/strength and an internal hierarchy which places living in alignment with ideals somewhere above comfort (or I should say this type of comfort).  That’s the dilemma we all face when living in a world which just doesn’t universally match our own morals.

I don’t want to give the impression that this dilemma is just about our food choices.  For me, the morals which I have found in myself (or developed in some cases) that cause the most difficulty lie in the realms of time management, material wealth, and the role of careers as cultural identifiers (which brings up nasty phrases like class struggle).  I have no desire to have comfort which causes some dehumanizing of others, but I do have such comforts.  That is to have comfort which couldn’t be (in theory) universally had, not quite socialism, but enough-ism.  Not everyone in a city can live as comfortably as the wealthiest, so if I were the wealthiest person in a city I would feel a great deal of dissonance about that fact (which means I’m unlikely to ever become the wealthiest person in a city).  I think that free time and freedom are extremely important for functioning families/democracies/relationships, and that the vast majority of people I know are truly enslaved by financial pressures, their lifestyles, and jobs (such pressures seem to erode relationships, families, depth of life, quality of life, quality of food, etc.).  These sorts of internal morals are not so uncommon, but acting on them requires much more strength/willpower than saying no thanks to chicken wings.  So I arrive again at the notion that ‘I can do anything’ thus what do I choose to do?  Is the ability to look at myself in the mirror and know that I am doing well by my own sense of morality more valuable to me than being respected and supported by society?  Do you follow the example of Gandhi or your peers?

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