What a life we would have if only we were left to do as we pleased! But as we grow up, all of a sudden, a neither visible nor tangible unknown entity arises and begins to exert its invisible influence on us.
It shapes our opinions and our behaviour. It discourages us from questioning or debating the beliefs and practices of the majority. We begin to meet the demands of the collective, the society in which we live.
We can say that society has a will of its own, an ability to think and act in its own right. But what makes it able to exert such influence on us is perhaps because it is endowed with a higher consciousness, because it is composed of several of us.
Our collective consciousness protects our collective interests by way of devising obligations, morals, values, and customs. These may force us to do jobs that we may not like, in order to meet expectations such as financial success, social status, gender roles, etc. Due to the fear of ostracism, we refrain from committing acts that go against the collective consensus.
For me, the force that society exerts and to a large, even total, degree dictates our behaviour, does in fact come from you and me. So, if you and I pulled back ourselves from it, this collective entity and its influence will cease to exist, too.
But no, we will not pull back ourselves because this entity obliges us to experience reality in certain ways and not in others. It causes each of us to view ourselves as a cultural and social object. It creates a moral force that controls us and makes us think, feel and act as it wishes. You cannot cross its limits; in its higher wisdom it knows how to achieve the equilibrium that is its goal.
By way of maintaining this equilibrium this collective entity creates a social structure. Social life appears to us as a system of more or less deeply rooted habits, values and actions corresponding to the needs of all of us. Some values and actions are commands, but most of them are habits of obedience.
If we obey our parents or teachers, show respect for elders, refrain from smoking, follow customs, etc, it is because of the internalisation of these habits, values and actions. This does not mean that they are innate and develop autonomously; they may depend on our interactions with family members, peers, authority figures, cultural idols, and primarily though observing how others respond to them.
If you do not internalise these values and habits, the social structure will push you out. We have been taught that we are by nature greedy and sensual, thus we require this social structure for restraining us. In the absence of this force, the self and its passions are always profane and never become sacred.
It is impossible to investigate how this force began. It is something which is universal across societies. We cannot know it but still we endorse its rules of proper conduct and punish anyone who violates them. If the authority of this force is questioned by someone, then religion and tradition come to its rescue. Whether religion has a social or a spiritual essence, one thing is certain: that it has always played a role of supporting the social system and reinforcing the claims of this invisible collective consciousness.
—The writer is a Junior Research Fellow (JRF). [email protected]