Thursday, 10 January 2013

The rise of individuality and the decline of social constrain

Society is structured in such a way that it favours small, incremental and continual change. We have come to recognise that change is good and needed for our social development but we are also scared of its unintended consequences. As a result, both governments and individuals have favoured gradual to radical. Whenever an objective is recognised and agreed upon, we have slowly moved towards reaching it, with ups and downs and detours along the way. Take the eco-movement, 50 years after the publication of ‘Silent Spring’, the book that sparked the environmental movement, we have moved decisively towards a greener economy and lifestyle (with many detours indeed) but we are not even close to reaching the goal of living in a green society.

Sometimes, though, the desire to fix a mistake in our social pattern is so great that gradual change is not enough. The end of racial segregation in the US was the result of pressure being put on the government and the legal system. The legal end of segregation can be traced to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case. But social segregation was slower to disappear and many parts of the US are still plagued by racial discrimination. In this case, the system reacted before society, identifying a fundamental wrong and moving to fix it.

Today, however, we are going through a very rapid change all over the world. Archaic views of society and traditional values are contested from a grassroot level, with people's attitudes greatly changing and with institutions struggling to keep up. Remarkable about this change is not just its speed but also the fact that it is visible, in various forms, all over the world. A rejection of some of the most traditional social values is brewing in most societies.

Who run the world? Girls!

To a certain extent, this rejection can be traced back to the beginning of the Arab Spring when people took to the streets to protest against their governments in places of the world that have little to no experience of democracy. To ask for a transparent and democratic government in such restrictive places like the Arab Peninsula and North Africa is a significant change in social mentality. The fact that women were protesting as vigorously as men was a further of sign of change. 

The Arab Spring underlines one of the major changes we are going through: the increasing involvement of women. For a deeply paternalistic and misogynistic social construct (like the one in these countries) to change to such an extent that women get to protest against the government and generally be very well integrated in the protest movements, was a big surprise. And this was just the beginning. Instances of women refusing to adopt a second rank role in society are increasingly common. Pakistani 14 year old girl, Malala Yousufzai, became a role model for many women in the world after she was shot in the head by the Taliban because ‘she promoted secularism’. 

But the best examples for this new wave of female awakening can be found in SE Asia were women and the younger generations in general are standing up against sexism and sexual violence. The rape and death of a 23 year old woman in India has sparked massive protests in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. New Delhi even witnessed a SlutWalk (for anybody who is familiar with Indian social customs, this event must have been a massive shock). The protests in India have been huge, being labelled as 'unprecedented' by the University of Edinburgh, 'the awakening of the Indian Middle Class' by the Lowy Institute for International Policy and even as ‘India's Arab Spring' by Fareed Zakaria. The government is now scrambling to put in place better legislation to protect women and, judging by the number of taboos that have been broken during these protests, some form of change will have to prevail. The extent of this will, however, be influenced by many factors and it is too early to be predicted.

It is also important to note that, in older democracies, women are increasingly voted in power. Germany, Australia and South Korea, countries that have done very well during the economic crisis, are now led by women.

Pretty and witty and gay

But it is not only via protesting that change can be achieved. In mature democracies where institutions follow the social desires of the population, change comes naturally. And the faster popular attitude changes, the faster the institutional framework will follow. In Europe, where women are already socially equal to men (and increasingly favoured as leaders), sexual minorities are staging a mini revolution of their own. Both Britain and France are debating (and will most likely adopt) laws to allow gay people to marry. The debated has shifted so much in recent years that now the arguments are on whether gay parents should be allowed to adopt or if Churches should be forced to marry same sex couples. In effect, gay marriage has already been accepted and the question now is about the extent of the change to be made in legislation. 

The shock decision by the Anglican Church to allow gay bishops underlines the changes in a society that is eager to offer equal rights to sexual minorities. In the UK, the electorate supports gay marriage by a ratio of 2:1 (62% for vs 31% against). As The Guardian explains, sharper differences emerge when the results are analysed across the age ranges. The over-65s resist the proposal, by 58% to 37%, but support is progressively stronger in younger age groups. The pro-reform majority is 64% among 35-64s, 75% among 25-34s, and an overwhelming 77% among 18-24s.’

The situation is similar in France, although society is much more polarised on the issue. Opinion polls show the general public supports gay marriage but small groups are very vocal in opposing the reform. The debate is complicated even further by a desire of the government to move ahead of the curve and legalise the right of gay parents to adopt children. It is very interesting to see how right-wing, traditionalist forces, have reacted in the French debate. The UMP, crumbling after the era of Sarkozy, is not capable of speaking on a single voice and Marine Le Pen’s Front National discourse is very similar to that of the Muslim religious leaders (the two groups have even promoted the same events).

The beginning of a feminist movement in India and in the Arab countries and the acceptance of sexual minorities in Europe are only a few signs of a greater trend. We are going through a very subtle but powerful change in the social fabric where individuals are taking power from society and rending social norms irrelevant. The family as a basic unit of social construction has been replaced with the individual and the social construction itself is rapidly abandoned. Divorce is now normal and polyamory is increasingly present in the media and in the life of younger individuals. 

Individuals are taking back rights not just from society but from the state as well. The successful referendums on the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington and the refusal of many other EU and US states to effectively impose the illegality of its use are further signs of individual self-determination.

In many ways, these changes can be explained by a decrease in society’s religiosity. Individuality is best kept under control by referring to religious-born values like self-sacrifice. But as religion is losing its influence, these arguments no longer work.

Narcis takes over the world

There are risks and disadvantages to this change as well and we shouldn’t ignore them. A study shows that young adults are increasingly seeing themselves as being better than anybody else (typical for young adults but with a higher frequency and stronger than usual) with 25% of American students showing signs of narcissism. 

This increase in self-esteem and confidence is also translated at a governmental level with parties becoming increasingly nationalistic and cultivating the myth of the superior nation of individuals. Conservative parties that are focusing on nationalistic sentiments are actually gaining from this change as they can more easily spread the view that their electorate is better than ‘the outsiders’. Japan’s new government is the perfect example.

Changes like the ones that we are seeing now don’t happen very often. In many parts of the world, societies are moving towards John Stuart Mill's  desired world although much change is still needed to reach that objective. It is important to remember, though, that change can have various consequences. The rise of nationalism is one of the consequences that needs to be avoided. If we accept that we, as individuals, are better left free, than we must understand that the responsibility of avoiding damaging changes in mentality also falls on our shoulders.

No comments:

Post a Comment