The young doctor stood in the packed auditorium, microphone in hand, glancing from downcast face to downcast face. Amidst that awkward disquiet, his honest, good-intentioned query suffocated in a hundred medical minds, asphyxiating under a pillow of political correctness. The young doctor, son of a recent acquaintance of mine, along with his fellow doctors in residency had just heard a presentation addressing the negative physiological effects of sodomy and how they might be treated. The presentation was concluded, the microphone was passed, and the young doctor asked, “Given these harmful effects, should I advise my patients to desist from such activity?”
The stunned silence of the doctors is easy to understand. In our individualistic, post-sexual revolution age, it is a blasphemous affront to the dignity of personal autonomy to place an obstacle to another’s pursuit of sexual fulfillment. Of course, for those of us beholden to the beauty of Christ’s solemnization of human sexuality, who live with an invigorating fear of God, and who dare to hope that every man might stand justified on the day of judgment, the “blasphemy” of the young doctor sounds like reverence, his naïve “intolerance” like charity.
The plight of the young doctor’s question illuminates a distinction which Harvard psychologist Herman Kelman famously made between two common forms of social influence: normative and informative. The shame inducing silence of our young doctor’s peers is an example of normative social influence. Had his peers refuted the premise of his question with a reasoned defense of the freedom of consensual adults to engage in physiologically dangerous sex-acts, then they would have been engaging in informative social influence through positive rational or rhetorical persuasion. Normative social influence appeals to the good of interpersonal communion, informative to the good of possessing the truth.
It is characteristic of our day that when normative social influence is brought to our attention we generally hold it in disdain. This disdain arises from a characteristically modern social norm: the norm of authenticity. As an authentic person, you must intentionally and critically examine each of your cultural inheritances, choose what you like and discard that which you don’t—and you must not raise obstacles to others doing the same. It’s a Lockean philosophy of political sovereignty applied to the realm of moral tradition. And just as consent undermines the definition of sovereignty, the norm of authenticity would seem to undermine normative social influence itself: Peer pressure is vilified because it tempts us to be inauthentic.
The irony, of course, is that just as the exercise of sovereignty is necessary to perpetuate the politics of consent—as the recently-ousted democratically-elected president of Egypt can testify—so too is normative social influence (or peer pressure) necessary to perpetuate the norm of authenticity—as the shunning of our young doctor friend can testify. There is no zone of invulnerability to normative social influence, although many live under the illusion of occupying such a space.
The positive counterpart to this social vulnerability is that we always belong to a moral community. The more we share the norms and values, aspirations and ideals, hopes and fears of the community, the more united we are with each other. Both normative and informative forms of social influence are inevitable and important for achieving and passing on this great good of human community. There is a time and a place to patiently bear the brunt of blasphemy, to carefully refute the errors that undergird vice, but there is also a time and place to tear our garments and respond with indignant silence. In fact, normative social influence may be the more ubiquitous and powerful support of moral consensus simply because human beings fear more to be left out than to be mistaken.
In our pluralistic and morally confused society, this fact impresses upon us the importance of clearly identifying our loyalties. When the young doctor bore the brunt of his peers shaming silence, he was faced with the choice that presses upon us all: To whom do we conform? Non-conformity is not an option.
Photo Credit: Jasleen Kaur, Sphygmomanometer