Freedom and Social Expectations

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This reminded me of some of our conversations in class about freedom. It’s a humorous depiction of social expectations (structural power) and how our compliance (or defiance) creates it (or destroys it). It’s not running screaming form the room (my preferred example), but it’s the same idea.

As much as it made me laugh, it also made me think. All the examples of structural power we have talked about in class have been negative. It is used to explain and excuse what we would otherwise consider immoral action. But if structural power is defined as the expectations we have when we interact with each other, it is far more necessary for society then I initially thought.

All of our social interactions within a society require expectations. It is very difficult to work with other people unless you have a reasonable idea of how they will act. Hobbes put this in terms of covenants and employed a sovereign to enforce them. In our discussions of Steinbeck, Marx, and Weber in class, we put it in terms of structural power, the cumulative force of everyone’s every day interactions. While we blame this unconscious power for so much that is wrong in society today, remember that society is not possible without it.

By its very nature, structural power is created every time we interact with each other. Society cannot exist without it. This is partly because society is a definition of structural power. But it is also because there would be no way to communicate with or understand each other within society without structural power. To take the example in the comic linked above, if I expected someone to punch me in the face at any moment without warning, I wouldn’t talk to them. It is our mutual unstated agrement that we will not engage in face punching (or other violent acts such as defenestration) that allows us to interact.

Following the expectations of structural power is what defines us as people. Not only as a people (a society) but also as individual persons entitled to a place in that society. If I act like societies definition of a person, in both appearance and manner, I will probably be treated as one. If I ignore some of the basic expectations of society, be it with, for example,  a different appearance or a different religion, I will not be seen as a person and my perceived place in society will reflect this. This aspect of structural power has unpleasant consequences. Just as it allows us to see other humans as people, it can also allow us to see them as not people. This can make torture and oppression acts that are not reprehensible because no people are being hurt, just those creatures that happen to look sort of like us.

Structural power can not be eliminated or ignored; it must be worked with. Rather then trying to cut it’s hold over me as I initially wanted to after reading Steinbeck, I must learn accept it. It has power over me, but it is the power that binds society together and me into it. It is how I conduct myself within this bond, not whether or not it exists that is important.

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