I have this funky app I like to use on Twitter where I can track, in real time, hashtags and keywords. Currently on my list is “Society,” “Politics,” “Science,” “Social Science,” “21st Century Enlightenment” and “Philosophy.” How it works is that every time somebody tweets a message with one of these words, it pops up on my feed—courtesy of Hootsuite in case you were curious.

I’m starting to question my “Society” tag, though. It should be about as relevant to my work as anything, but most of what shows up in my feed is young people—teenagers and people in their early 20s—who are expressing a sort of conflict between themselves and “society.” Here are a couple of examples from this exact moment:

“Who can be real in society. i bet no one is real. but some are good at pretending to be so.” 

“Who wants to give up society and go live in a treehouse with me?” 

Quite revealing, isn’t it? We might all relate. Young adults are at the height of identity-development. Perhaps they’ve outgrown the family home or are taking their first, timid steps into society-at-large and finding it’s not quite what they suspected. They are simply acting out an age-old and natural process, leading and developing the gradual evolution of cultures and societies And the subtext of their pleas are important and relevant questions for all of us: What is “society” in this context? And what is this pressure it exerts on us? Where does it come from?

All societies, past and present, modern and primitive, contain natural moral institutions that decide what is right and good for society. They have always been there and will continue in some form or another for as long as humankind continues to exist.

The most obvious ones are government and religion, both topics I have written about extensively in this blog, (see Religion, Morality & New Atheism or Politics and Values for some examples).

Both of these institutions seem to float atop society like tectonic plates on oceans of magma. Their moral imperatives, in the service of stability and meaning respectively, filter down into society’s other moral institutions. Resisting religion—particularly in very spiritual societies is dangerous and resisting government pits individuals against the law as well as government’s many coercive powers. It can feel futile to even attempt resistance, but it happens and the moral outlook of these institutions can and does slowly evolve.

There are several more moral institutions whose existence and influence is much more subtle, though you certainly know they are there. For example, society dictates rules of etiquette, answering questions like: What are proper table manners? What is considered proper dress?

Society dictates the acceptable use of our bodies. Is alcohol socially accepted? What are the conventions regarding sexual activity?

We are socialized to feel a sense of loyalty to our social/cultural institutions. Germans take pride in their beer, thumbing their noses at the Belgians and Czechs. The French believe their wine to be superior and might bristle if anyone were to insinuate that the Italians do it better. Americans swell at the thought of their military superiority and even the most peaceful citizen would freely assert that, yes, we could beat the Russians if it came down to it.

We’re dictated as to how we handle our personal relationships. How do we treat strangers, friends, coworkers, husbands and wives, children, guests and hosts? How do we treat animals? How do we deal with people of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, etc.?

As a sum, it can seem incredibly complex, and transplants to new cultures and societies find themselves reeling at the interwoven layers of morality and convention they face. Youths, coming to grips with their own, unique identities, find their own ideas of how society should operate butting up against these institutions. They lash out, or “give up on society.”

Throughout history, rebels and revolutionaries find themselves at odds with one or many of these institutions. And when these particular people find themselves in positions of power, with the resources to attempt an abrupt change in how these institutions operate, the results have been disastrous. Consider Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, or Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to rid Russia of religion, completely restructure the political/economic system and reboot Russians’ relationship to their own society.

It’s difficult for me, as someone who writes about psychosocial phenomena, to offer advice for those who dispute the value or relevance of their society’s moral institutions, but why write a blog about these things if there wasn’t some overall point? It would be much easier to leave it at information and nothing more but we here at the TOP project highly value individuality and authenticity—these are the lifeblood of creativity, ingenuity and fulfillment—and moral institutions are the source of much, if not most of social and personal conflict.

On one hand, there are obvious consequences to defying religion, government, etiquette, popular morality, ethical convention and one’s culture. On the other hand, it is good to be true to oneself. I’ll leave it with a quote by a very wise American—someone who I am proud to share my heritage with, Thomas Jefferson:

“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

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