A friend of mine, a co-host on our radio show, had no more than uttered these words “social coercion”, when the part of me that is looking for possible Slow Lane material started up. I don’t know exactly why these words agitated me so. I’m hoping to find out as I reflect upon what got stirred within me. All I know for sure is that I could smell something that was more complex than it seemed. I think I gravitated to it much like the salmon is drawn back to its spawning place.
Social coercion. That sounds so much like being bullied by the masses. I guess for some it is. It implies that actions are the result of others. This is an anti-democratic nightmare. Somebody manipulates others to have their will. It is no wonder that groups are not trustworthy. The social arena is full of this harmful possibility. People worry because social coercion is everywhere; from advertising, political spin, religious proselytizing and all forms of fixing, healing and converting. The world of social connection is full of it.
There is a necessary evil that haunts us as a social animal (social coercion), so much so that I think we would rather demonize it than learn to deal with it. In other words, social coercion is a natural phenomenon in a world of connection. Throwing it out, or acting surprised and intolerant of it, would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I don’t think my friend was doing anything like this when he mentioned social coercion, but my antenna went wild, because we live in such a fragmented culture, and there is so much distrust around, that I could believe someone might argue that if we could put an end to social coercion we might have a saner more humane world.
As you probably can tell, I think social coercion is one form of that which binds each of us to the other. Relationship necessarily involves enough pushing and shoving so that all parties can learn, if they want to, how to take care of themselves. Relationship, if it is the real deal, involves realities colliding; a certain amount of jousting to find out what is possible. If coercion, taking one’s own position and advocating for it, was looked at a path to social hell, then we as a species would be so cut-off, and so isolated that we could no longer consider ourselves to be social animals.
Maybe this isn’t common knowledge, or it isn’t something people actually grasp, but each of us lives in a bubble we call reality. This bubble is composed of everything we see and believe in. The world we live in is partially composed of the bubble (worldview) we apply to it. From the world we create with our bubbles comes our sense of self. The science of human development reveals that maturation involves giving up one bubble (the partial worldview), and sense of self you have, for a more complex, more complete bubble (another less-partial worldview), and a more capable, functional self. The great spiritual practices are based upon the same recognition. Reality becomes more real, more as it is, as we give up our insistences that it conform to our constructs. Life, more or less, coerces us out of blindness into the light.
People give up their bubbles for various reasons, sometimes it’s voluntary, sometimes it’s not. In the meantime all of these bubbles coexist and press on each other. Social reality is made up of multiple coexisting bubbles, upon which, there are also multiple identities — selves trying to live up to their worldviews. To be true to oneself in this kind of tumultuous free for all social space is hard. And, this hardship, plus exposure to all of these partial worldviews, is just what humans need to grow and become what they are capable of being. The tumult, including what can be considered social coercion, tempers us, and confers upon us the choices we must make to become ourselves.
Social coercion is a complex phenomenon. I’d like to do away with some forms of it (for example gang or fraternity hazing rites) but I’m concerned that that would weaken our social immune system and leave us even more vulnerable to toxic world-views. I think that social coercion begs not to be stopped, but to be outgrown. The more solid I am, the more confident I am in my own worldview (bubble), the less I worry about coercion. Paradoxically, this strength or confidence, comes from regularly and completely rubbing shoulders with this sea of others who hold differing viewpoints. The most useful response to social coercion is through exposure to social coercion.
I am more worried about the impulse to limit the pressures of social coercion, than I am concerned about social coercion. I know a lot of damage has been done, especially to voiceless minorities, but I don’t want us (humanity) to denature ourselves (each other) rather than grow ourselves. Social coercion is the water we learn to be ourselves in; it is the complex environment that coaxes out of us our own nuances.
While I’m dwelling on this topic I just have to say that one of the most basic and virulent forms of social coercion is the misuse of the word “we.” We is a powerful word. It can refer to the existence of the collective, the community of connection, that always exists, or it can be used as the worst form of inclusiveness that paradoxically excludes differences. “We” has been a generalization that has led to genocide, slavery and many forms of extreme prejudice. It behooves us all to pay attention to how the word is used by each of us. It is an indicator of what kind of bubble any of us lives in.
I think it better not to think so much in terms of social coercion, but to think more in terms of social diversity.