I often mistake an internalised cultural voice for my own voice. In many ways we live in a free society where the code is that, within what’s legal, every individual has the right to do whatever he or she wants. It’s a liberating concept that gets vigorously defended.
But what I have noticed is that freedom only tends to exist within the boundaries of the cultural fences, so it’s a very limited version of freedom. What happens when someone questions the prevailing authority (usually in the form of that cultural voice)? The person who is supposed to be free to do what they want is suddenly disobedient.
“What gives you the right to be different? What makes you so special?” I have heard this said very often… where does it stem from?
Freedom and submission are mental states. Submission is when I put an outside authority ahead of my own. It seems to me that much of my upbringing was centred around this. “Manners” applied to a very wide range of meanings. Respect for authority is the first thing that school made me learn, mostly in the nicest and most well-intentioned way (otherwise it wouldn’t happen). It continued from school into the office hierarchy. After repeated instances of obeying someone else’s authority, I began to forget my own authority. Obeying orders, whether explicit (“do this”) or implicit (“I ought to do this”), which run against my (barely recognised) values, is modern day slavery in full effect.
For me it has happened more than I like to admit:
– Giving weekends and evenings over to work at the expense of my family or friends
– Not sticking up for a vulnerable person for fear of rocking the boat
– Letting other people’s judgments determine my level of self-esteem
– Respecting conventional wisdom above my own intuition
But cultural obedience is also disobedience – disobedience towards my own inner authority.
I used to see disobedience as defiance, a negative act, born of dickishness or dissatisfaction. Now I see it as the opposite. It can be the noblest of acts, the source of human-ness and creativity (assuming that I’m not actually just trying to be a dick).
Given the lack of obvious alternatives, it is easy to follow a widely accepted authority; I can’t be criticised. When the act of obeying a personal source of authority is taken as disobedience rather than authenticity, then personal authority will tend to get ignored very quickly, since we have a deep-seated fear of straying from the tribe. But the modern day results of this are devastating: the concept of responsibility can become limited to simply obeying the law, making it feel OK to do lots of legal, harmful stuff. Individual essence drains, leaving people emptier.
I don’t admire the moral champion so much any more. I am more interested in the people who disobey with dignity.