At one time or another, we have all been subject to social norms. It may have been about how to behave with parents/elders. Or, about how to be a “decent” human being. Or, about not treating someone you love poorly. From this limited set of examples alone, we can see that social norms are not all bad. But, let’s put the subject under the microscope, and really understand what these norms attempt to do in theory, and what they end up doing in practice.
Norms are a guide to living
In a nutshell, the goals of human living are personal fulfillment, social functioning and occupational functioning.
Different cultures set different characteristics for these three goals. Norms do derive from culture. Take India for example. To maintain family bonds is the first step. In many cases, this involves obedience, but not without a healthy sprinkling of love and affection. Jobs are the next big step. Thus, there is immense academic pressure right from the get-go. Finally, there is extending the family, which involves marriage and children. When you think about it objectively, this is not a bad formula for living. Respect, bond and cooperate with those you grow up with. Strive for financial security, career stability and achievement, and, finally, settle with a life companion and some bundles of joy to keep you happy for the rest of your life.
Other cultures define different norms as a guiding principle to life in their neck of the woods.
Whatever the formula is in a culture, the following challenges generally emerge:
Difficult living conditions
Things such as poverty, domestic abuse, parental mental illness, extreme authoritarianism, lack of opportunities etc end up making life quite difficult. In all that stress, the formula can feel like shackle more than a lifeline.
Certain tasks are prioritized over others. For example, building only those practices that could lead to financial security in the future. There may also be such a strong emphasis on contributing around the house that your needs, dreams and aspirations get ignored.
Both children and adults like to have a significant degree of support and freedom. Any style of guidance/management that imposes severe restrictions on freedom and doesn’t offer adequate support takes a toll on mental health. It is often wise to strike a balance between rules, responsibilities, support and freedom. One way to do this is to condition support and freedoms on rules and responsibilities. For example, “Help me do the dishes and I’ll help you do whatever you want in the evening.”
Reactions from people
People don’t always react the way you want them to. Sometimes, they react in a way that hurts you and your dreams. There are also overly negative people (possibly frustrated and depressed for valid reasons) who are impossible to satisfy/please. Children, in particular, struggle with this, because they are not old enough to practice rewarding themselves instead of expecting rewards from others.
Norms aim to keep control over violators
Sometimes, norms are harsh. For example, in many radical muslim countries, a woman’s life depends on her having very little freedom. In theory, it is a good thing to define standards which when violated leads to punitive action. For example, being rude is not taken well by most people. It is a norm that does well to correct violators. But human rights is a tricky area. I think we can all agree that women should have the same rights as men. Thus, any norm that is more severe on women than men is not good for anyone concerned, mental healthwise. It creates a power dynamic that is unhealthy for both the oppressor and the victim. It creates rage, bitterness, trauma and depression on the victim’s end, and ego, entitlement, violence and aggression on the oppressor’s end. If allowed to go on, then it becomes difficult to continue blaming the oppressor because once habits become estabished, they escape the control of morality and reason. In the end, it’s best to leave severe punishments to bodies of law that are sufficiently educated in criminal behavior and criminal responsibility.
Norms are meant to foster two-way cooperation
People don’t live in isolation. They live together. So they must learn to get along with each another. As they say, relationships are about give and take. No relationship can work by only taking or only giving. Indeed, the very expectation of giving and taking in a relationship is set as a social norm. We would all do well to practice two-way cooperation. But, in practice, such norms are often unbalanced in their enforcement. There is more taking on one end, and more giving on the other end.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. I have done my best to explain the theoretical aims of norms and the pitfalls of their practice. Sound off in the comments about any ideas/opinions you may have about deriving the benefits of social norms while doing away with the harm from them.