Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Coerced by Conformity, Pierced Ears Edition

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes" -Obi Wan Kenobi

I don't know about the rest of you, but for me, moral philosophy is a good dubstep track: everything makes sense, then someone drops the bass and I reconsider my position in the universe. I can accept arguments in favor of an absolute morality, especially when grounded in common-sense reasoning; hence, accessible to ordinary folks who use moral codes to order their lives--moral logic belongs to the people, not strictly to navel fluff knitters in the academy. Other times, I question my devotion to objective morality or worry that it can be abused when folks start conflating morality with aesthetics (a cognitive failure that I suspect happens more often than folks recognize). Moral relativism is replete with its own shortcomings, a sort of folk theorem anything-goes, multiple-equilibrium problem, where adherents can justify any sort of monstrous behavior using flimsy cultural or institutional arguments. Caveat: I am writing up an old post from here on anthropophagy. I am making the argument that exo-cannibalism is a rational response to environmental constraints, but my analysis is free of moral postulates. Just because a practice is institutionally efficient does not render it moral.

All that said, I'd like to share a recent episode in the saga of the Incomparable Mrs. Spivonomist. My mother-in-law is fond of saying that she has no problem with earrings: if you don't have enough weight in your head, feel free to add some more. Aren't Lithuanians great at passive-aggressive jabs? Maybe it's just my wife's family. Anyway, her lack of pieced ears befuddled some of her co-workers, leading to a discussion about body modification and cultural norms. In the culture under discussion [not identified here], it's not uncommon to get lots of piercings and to get them young. Indeed, my wife's co-worker was complaining because she had to take her three-year-old daughter back in for the third time to get her ears pierced because the holes kept closing. This made her feel bad because her daughter found the procedure... distressing.

Now, it's well and good for me to sit here and claim that I can't imagine under what conditions I would have to find myself to intentionally inflict pain and suffering on my daughter (who is indeed the honeycrisp apple of my eye), but my culture coordinates on other conformity signals. Others (including my wife's co-worker's child) aren't so lucky. The group norm, which she had no hand in generating, is coercive: failure to conform imposes very real costs on the rogue.

There are a number of puzzles here, some of which appear in the real-deal peer-reviewed literature from time to time. Where do cultural norms like piercing the ears of a toddler come from? How are they perpetuated? How are they ever overcome? The corollary to "why so much stability?" is "why so much instability?" A sister project to EE is a systematic investigation of these sort of questions, and I think it might be about time to dust off my old blog to jot down some preliminary thoughts on this.

At any rate, to what extent is the pressure to conform coercive? Is it reasonable to expect people to have the courage to cease monstrous behavior when it's no longer institutionally adaptive?

Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

But perhaps perhaps perhaps not.

Yes, I am listening to Cake right now.

1 comment:

  1. Mmmmmmm.... cake.

    And some cultural norms are meant to be overridden by biological determinism. If your 3-year old daughter's ears keep healing from the piercing, maybe it isn't the right time to get pierced.

    Just sayin'.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?