Monday, July 19, 2010

Challenging Social Conventions

Social conventions are considered to be the "norm". And norms are the values a certain society holds. This week-end, my husband and I saw two plays that challenged two values in our society; appearance, and conventional ideas.

"Fat Pig" was a humorous jab at our society's value of "being fit". Being overweight, Helen had had numerous encounters of being the brunt of society's "convention". She coped with the ostericism by learning to "make fun of herself", and to be bluntly forthright about another's thoughts about her "fatness".

Helen had not had a chance at love, as she had been rejected before anyone took the time to know the person behind the "facade", until she met "Ben". The play ended with the sacrifice of Helen, on the altars of society's conventional wisdom; one cannot succeed with a fat wife!

The other play, "The Trial of Barach Spinoza" was a true rendition of a Jewish philosopher, who challenged the conventional wisdom of Judiasm, as well as the status quo in a Dutch Reformed Amersterdam in the 1600's.

Spinoza was painted as a radically committed person who was willing to "die" for his faith. But, his faith was not one of conventional wisdom, and his death would not be a physical, but social one.

Society, as an entity itself, maintains its conventions with rules that guard and guide the "faithful". Society has much to loose if it conventions do not maintain their power, as society would end in chaos and be destroyed. The "gatekeepers" of tradition are those that help to maintain these conventions.

The individual, as a person, is lost within these systems, if these systems are too constrictive.

Helen's "rebuke" was not a trial, like Spinoza's, but it was nevertherless, a painful realization that she was to be an outcast to a life of being loved and valued, in her own right.

Spinoza's freethought threatened the status quo. And the choice for Spinoza was inevitably a painful realization that he would not be the "choir boy" within his "Jewish tradition". But, being the "choir boy" was never Spinoza's goal in the first place. Spinoza's friend, who betrayed him to the "authorities", was seeking to be a "choir boy", at least at first. Spinoza's intellectual honesty and commitment to be "true to himself" was the threat to society's traditional view.

One has to ask whether the values that society affirms are values that are truly "righteous"? Or are these conventional values "self affirming rights" to discriminate against another? And if one discriminates, then is there a conscious choice about the reasons why one discriminates?

People, for the most part, are not self-reflective enough to consider whether the value of a human being is to be put above social convention. Social convention is "an easy way out" of an uncomfortable challenge to one's social values.

I haven't come to my conclusions about all the why's or why not's, but I will be thinking about it this week.

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