Do Your Own Thing Revisted
Back in the old days (the days are old, not me) I remember lots of discussion about “peer pressure” and whether or not we were being true to ourselves or just trying to stay in some social club. Now of course we’ve put all that behind us and act as purely self-actualized adults, right? Right.
Turns out it never really goes away. We become more sure of ourselves but keep the blind spot. And no one likes it when you point it out.
Our new buddy social media thrusts the peer pressure decision in our face daily. Sometimes it seems like looking at our electronic screens is wandering through the looking glass. It’s peep pressure transmogrified. Before social media we never worried about clicking likes, loves, laughs, “wows!” or angry hot heads. Or about the clicks you got. Now our self worth is tied to it.
I thought about my response to seeing a recent post by someone else that everybody LOVED! Not a collection of different reactions. But LOVED! This one got twenty-three solid hearts. I was set to click but I wasn’t feeling the love. I just kinda liked it.
Ain’t no pressure like twenty-three loves and I just like it.
So what did I do? I put that observation up as a post on Facebook of course. I thought it might hit a nerve. A day later, only nine responses: five laughs, three likes and one love (someone being ironic?). So what happened? I got all squirrely with that familiar Facebook rejection vibe. My post clearly wasn’t resonating.
But it was understandable. Who wants to confess to peer pressure? We laugh off peer pressure as a demon of adolescence that we have successfully negotiated. But in reality it’s a living, breathing, present day hobgoblin. It’s never banished. It just changes garb.
I’ve had other minor encounters with this situation and just sort of clicked the little red “love” heart anyway after seeing three or four uniform loves on a post. I guess I could love it. What’s the dif?
But seeing a string of twenty-three solid hearts brought me up short.
I thought about it for a minute and considered the fact that I was looking at a real history of peer pressure right there with those twenty-three loves. That’s a whole ton of pressure to up your vote. When a post gets around three loves you start thinking “Maybe that’s a love?”. By the time it gets to twenty-three you know somebody somewhere in there juiced up their enthusiasm. You really want to be the only blue thumb in that list?
We have a fierce war of personal independence going on with people’s response to Covid restrictions. And what role might a recoil from peer pressure have? In pondering that question I had a forehead smacking moment. I realized how similar it was to my generation’s mentality and the youthful messages of personal liberty we knocked around. I remember being pretty enthusiastic about “Do your own thing!”. Yeah baby. I can deal with that. “Let it all hang out!” was another one. A little more graphic but there it is. The good, the bad, and the sloppy.
Conformity was the biggest mistake anyone could make. Rebellion needs slogans and we had ‘em: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!”, “Make love not war”, “Hell no, we won’t go!”.
Bland homogenized 1950’s-style middle-America looked suddenly anemic in the face of the wild fun-loving tribe that was rejecting it. There was a bus leaving for some king of psychic spiritual cross-cultural adventure and I was on on it!
There’s a long venerable history to all of this of course. Before my age group “discovered” it there were beatniks. Before that “The Lost Generation”. Before that the Romantics. The errant youth of the Mezozoic probably thought their parents were positively Paleolithic.
Which brings us back to today.
I have tried and failed to comprehend the rejection of sensible measures to curb the Covid pandemic from people who insist on their freedom. The issue is a huge one. Part of dealing with it involves an understanding of some things ingrained in our American psyche, things that are a legacy of post-Enlightenment classic Liberalism.
We are entirely obsessed with freedom. We give lip service to family and community and patriotism but what we really care about is doing whatever the hell we want.
The balance is off. Free to be self absorbed is a sad and shallow kind of liberty. The way in which we appropriate freedom is complex and problematic. I do have this observation though. What we are seeing now is just another instance of an insistence on personal freedom, that it should be pure and inviolate. It’s a rebellion based on a narrow definition of self-reliance. I can’t help but see parallels between the more indulgent aspects of the free spirit sixties and the current emphasis on “Freedoms” which reject restrictions on behavior and reject stricter vaccination protocols due to the Covid crisis.
When I began hearing the phrase “Sheeple” I think back to what we called “Plastic People”. Seems we are hard-wired to demonized those who follow their nose. That’s all fine and dandy in that we do well to emphasize critical thinking to spare us from automatic predisposition. But a pitfall also opens here into a kind of cheap freedom that might well result in us becoming robots of self-sufficiency, pointlessly free. Tail chasers.
There’s clearly something in common in the spirit of both eras. Both are born in reaction to perceived restrictions on personal autonomy. In the sixties it was the image of middle-class conventionality, now it’s the image of governmental imposition.
Which brings us to the biggest illusion about this freedom and that is: that the urge to “Do your own thing” solves problems big and small, not only freeing you from your “hang ups” (remember those?) but also in curing all of societies ills. As if mere self-interest and becoming “authentic” somehow creates a new integrity that clears the decks of all of societies ills.
But this is a “cheap freedom”. It’s a concept of freedom that emerged from Enlightenment naturalism, the freedom of hedonism.
Immanuel Kant suggested a way to negotiate the expression of genuine freedom via both duty and autonomy. That paradox is only sustained in balance by a willful insistence on a transcending rational principle. I’m with Kant on this in the opinion that we desperately need to move beyond the cheap freedom of an individualism that neglects the common good. We should all be about this search for this deeper meaning of freedom.
Making note of this will probably chafe my liberal friends because, of course, our rebellion was righteous (anti-war, social justice, women’s rights, gay rights. etc.) while this new outrage is just selfish and bone-headed. That may well be. But you’d have to be blind not to see that a big component of the previous era’s emphasis on freedom was self-indulgence. And parts were even bone-headed.
In order to resolve our very healthy insistence on freedom in a manner that is constructive and mutually beneficial, in order to avoid the pitfall of self-indulgence, the freedom of action must aim not towards self-expression or some pleasure principle, but always have in mind the greater good. The exercise of freedom requires sacrifice.
And the beat goes on.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed, please show it some love. You can read more from me in my publications on Medium “Word Sauce” or “Travel a Good Ways” or by visiting my blog “Life in the Hyphen” here.