You shouldn’t have to do silly things just to conform to arbitrary social norms. It is even worse to expect other people to conform to norms just because you like them.
Arbitrary Social Rules
Societies tend to have unwritten rules about how we should act. These include how we should look, including how we dress as well as how we keep our hair and skin, how we should talk, and many others. Some make sense, such as the convention where we travel on the right side of a path (in the West). While the side we travel on does not really matter (as is obvious from the UK and several other cultures who travel on the left), it is beneficial to have this convention so that people do not bump into each other or block each others way. With that said, this should only be considered as a convention, and when travelling on the designated side of a path is deemed worse, it should be acceptable to make travelling on the “wrong” side an option. When we follow the rules too strictly, we become close minded and make illogical choices simply to conform.
What is not a useful convention is how we deal with other’s appearances. There is no good reason to say that women should wear make up or that men should comb their hair. There is no inherent benefit to doing these things. The only benefit is that people who follow these rules will not judge you poorly, making it an artificial benefit. It is artificial in the sense that before this rule existed, people could look however they wanted and no one judged them or complained or treated them poorly. This proves that there is no benefit inherent to looking “good”. It is only once someone decided that we must look a certain way that we started to judge others like that. Because people started to impose rules, we became forced to follow them. The only benefit of following arbitrary rules is that silly people expect you to and so they won’t treat you badly. This is analogous to a protection racket, wherein criminals will go to a safe neighborhood and offer these people protection if they pay them. In this scenario these people don’t need protection because their neighborhood is safe, so the criminals make the neighborhood unsafe by hurting people. The inhabitants then have to pay the criminals to protect them. Similarly to arbitrary social norms, these criminals create a problem for themselves to solve. Those who don’t realise what is happening will think that the criminals are protecting them from danger, when in fact they are simply asking you to pay them so that they don’t hurt you.
These social rules fabricate a problem so that you will go to them for a solution.
Another example is how we are forced to do things to appear polite. We should we lie and pretend to like the sweater we received, and then be forced to wear it when the person who bought it visits us? This might make them happy but that is a false happiness. If I had given someone a gift they didn’t like, I would want to know. I would not want them to have to put up with the present and be forced to wear it, and I would want to know to avoid buying them something similar. Buying someone a gift is supposed to be a nice thing for them, but your gift instead causes them discomfort. By not caring about whether or not someone likes your gift (or by them pretending they like your gift), you are gambling with either being nice to them or being mean to them. There is no advantage to this, and we would all be better off if we were honest with people. The only issue with this is that some people cannot handle this truth and get depressed when someone does not like their gift. Instead we should care more about what the person wants instead of our own egos.
Some people maintain that these rules are there to make sure society works, and claim that society would fall apart if we do not follow these rules. These rules are however often not essential or even important to how we live. If we stop following the illogical rules, there will generally be no negative impact on our daily lives. The idea that society would collapse assumes a positive definition of “society” as well, which I think is questionable.
The two assumptions:
- Societal rules are fundamental to maintain modern society.
- Modern society’s rules have an overall positive effect on us.
Instead of following dogmatic rules, we should simply maintain the conventions that are useful, but discard the ones that cause negative effects. It is that very dogma that makes people take these rules too far and judge people based on their behaviour. This leads to class differences, keeping people down. Instead we should be nicer to each other, and be open minded enough to not blindly follow harmful rules and apply them in situations where they don’t make sense.
a positive definition of “society” as well, which I think is questionable.
People have to follow arbitrary social norms because they are expected to, and not doing so may have negative consequences for them. While people should not have to follow these norms, and shouldn’t do so, it is hard to expect people to refuse when it is often at their own expense. Brave people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others sacrificed a lot to break societal rules and change how the system works. It is difficult to expect everyone to do this though, as they often have a lot to lose, and personal sacrifice must come willingly.
Instead of expecting everyone to be selfless, we should look at another part of the problem. The only reason people have to follow these rules is because other people still expect you to follow them. Women have to wear make up to have a decent chance of getting a job, but that is only because job interviewers look down on and make assumptions about women who don’t wear make up. You wouldn’t have to pay immense amounts of money on cosmetics and spend hours applying them every day if people didn’t judge you negatively because of your choice to not conform to beauty standards.
Arbitrary social rules are often illogical
People who don’t wear make up or do not care about their are not necessarily lazy, or bad in any way. They might not care about their appearance, which people might say is bad. In this case people only say it’s bad because that’s what everyone has agreed is lazy. Society dictated at some point that taking care of your appearance is important, without giving a reason why. Now we are raised in an environment where we are taught appearances are important, so we accept it blindly as well. If asked why, we give a self fulfilling prophecy: appearances are important because people will judge us based on them. This is circular logic, because the only reason people judge us on our appearances is because they think appearances are important.
Many social norms use circular logic. We accept them blindly, then we follow them because we think they are important. We think they are important because everyone else judges us by them, and we judge others by it because we think it is important.
When we are forced to follow rules we it is fairly easy to realise these rules are negative, in which case it is justified to not want to do them. When we see others not following the rules (especially if we follow them) it is harder to not judge them by it, simply because it is simple and only harms them, not ourselves. Some people like to judge, some simply to do because it is instinctive or because they are used to it. It is easy to tell someone they should do something. This is why we need to focus not on people rebelling against the system, but on those maintaining the system in place.
The only reason we still have these pointless rules is because some people still promote them. If you promote these silly, outdated, arbitrary, pointless, harmful rules, then you are contributing to the problem. Even if you feel you are better off conforming to rules because you cannot afford to break them, you should not then expect others to follow the same rules. You might advise someone to follow the rules for purely pragmatic reasons, but you should not judge people badly because they don’t follow those rules. Social conventions only stay in place as long as people uphold them. As soon as people forget about them or abandon them, people become free of them.
If you know that a rule is silly, or stupid, or tiresome, or boring, or inconvenient, or harmful, but you know everyone else expects you to follow it, then the way you can fix it is by rebelling against it and showing people how silly and pointless it is. If that is too dangerous for you you can also stop encouraging that behaviour, since there is absolutely no reason to do so other than others judging you poorly because you aren’t upholding their social structure. Such a case should be rare, because being so socially conservative is normally detrimental to others. There are some things that are good or neutral and can be conserved, but making the world so static that it barely changes at all is ignoring all the terrible problems we have. The world needs many changes, and a close minded and arbitrary social structure prevents us from fixing these problems and helping the people afflicted by them.
We should not have to follow arbitrary rules and we should definitely not support them. When rebelling against them is not a viable option, the very least we should do to help others is to not make them go through the same pain.