Thursday, February 3, 2011

Society Pressures through Mandatory, Necessary and Optional Codes

Image of a Panopticon Prison by Jeremy Bentham

I have previously blogged about free will - or rather the lack of it - but it was from a psychological, micro-cosmic standpoint. Nonetheless, on the macro-cosmic level, society and culture play an important role in shaping and influencing the actions of the individuals, sometimes even without their explicit knowledge.

First off, there is the code of the mandatory. This is what society compels us to do with a warning or certain consequences attached to it. It goes by different names, but it could be anything from laws, by-laws, standard practices, rules and regulations. Anytime we go against the norm or break the laws, we will face some kind of consequence or even punishment.

These prescriptions are usually enforced through a watchful observer. It could be a security guard, a law enforcement officer or a security camera. You may believe that stealing from a large company or the rich may not be a big deal, but you are compelled to refrain from it because of its unwanted consequences when you get caught. And that is the main point here. Speeding may not seem an immoral action to you and you will break it once given the chance or opportunity, i. e., once you believe that you can get off "scot-free."

A major difference between the religious Ten Commandments and the laws lies in its tone. While in the Bible it is a harsh recommendation, thou shalt , and the consequences are not immediately tangible, the law is much clearer and direct, you must, or else this and this will happen in this life. In society, the authorities have executive control and they can arrest you in the form of police officers and punish and discipline you via other government and law enforcement officials.

The necessary is different from the mandatory in that you are not necessarily compelled but rather feel compelled to follow the rules. Wearing clothes is not mandatory, but necessary. Nobody forces us to wear clothes, we simply accept it as a given rule and don't give a further thought; it becomes internalized. Some of us embody those values, such as “lying is wrong,” but, in general, nobody compels us nor do they keep a watchful eye on us because we ourselves believe in and fully accept the code's intrinsic values.

Another example of the necessary is work. Nobody forces us to work and make money, but we do feel compelled to do so. Being idle, without being wealthy that is, may have personal consequences and lead to uncomfortable living circumstances. We cannot afford many things that others have and feel left out of the loop.

Either way, if we don't follow the instructions of the necessary code, the consequences are generally not too dire. If we engage in unethical activities, we may face ostracism, loss of reputation, perhaps lose our jobs, but generally we do not face jail time for breaking ethical codes.

The final code is “optional.” Here we are free to do as we please, at least to a certain extent. There may be some recommendations though. We feel compelled to wear clothes, but in many cases we are given a number of options. The casual and semi-casual dress code denote a certain kind of control over what we are allowed to wear in a given situation. These codes again are informally or rather socially reinforced.

We also have the option to eat what we like. But then again, that does not mean that we all take advantage of binge eating or junk food. We are, in fact, internally compelled to moderate our eating habits because of the possibility of health consequences. 

In addition, we may have a say in our job selection, but again there is a specific way society views us and how it designates some jobs to be more desirable than others; whether it is from the point of prestige or income, all jobs are not deemed equally in the eyes of society.

Why do I call all of them codes? Because even though we have a certain amount of freedom of movement, we are still obeying rules and regulations. In fact, it seems that part of Orwell's “Big Brother” fantasy and Bentham's panopticon have become real. 

In everyday life, I am astonished at how many cameras are watching nonstop each and every move of mine for the sake of greater security. Again, the sociological conclusion is rather similar to the psychological one: You may believe you are free to do as you please, but it is not always the case.

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