Peer pressure can silence or empower society


It was some years ago, teaching a class at Wilfrid Laurier University, when I asked students to tell me anonymously, their deepest values. Then I asked them to write down the values of university culture and wider Canadian society. It turned out that their deepest values differed greatly from what they had identified as the values of their culture. In discussion, the students argued that we live in a culture, the values of which may be hostile to our deepest values. And most difficult of all is that we think that is commonplace.

I asked my students: who among their families and friends knew their deepest values? For most of them, the number of people who knew their deepest values was very small — Mom, most often, maybe Dad and perhaps one or two of their closest friends.

Knowing that our world will not get any better without a lively discussion of the goodness of life, a vital discussion of values, I asked them why so few people knew of their values: their answers were instructive: “We don’t share our values because we are afraid that others will laugh at us,” or, “they will think we’re weird.”

This was a new and dismaying dimension to peer pressure, and peer pressure at its most powerful: the pressure to keep us silent about what we really care about. The result is an impoverished dialogue of virtue and a mind set that keeps us from acting out our best intentions.

When we keep our deepest values private they have no public consequence. If we don’t speak about our values, then our culture conforms to somebody else’s values or like those people who value money more than morals, goods more than goodness, sex more than affection, fun more than fulfillment and environmental degradation more than sustainability. Politically, we are silenced by people with bull horns on either side of the argument while we sit silently in the middle of such vibrant discussions.

And the surprising thing about my questions: the lists of those deeply held values were very similar. The fact is that our age mates will not think we’re weird. We are not constrained by the real “others” so much as we are constrained by those imaginary “others” in our heads.

This situation is not confined to my university students. In the study “Yearning for Balance”(The Harwood Group), researchers found that most Canadians espouse values of personal responsibility, family life and friendship. But they do not think most other Canadians do. Most Canadians cite religious faith and generosity as guiding values in their lives but only a few think that most Canadians share these values. We seem to have a broad consensus regarding our core values but we don’t realize such a truth because no one is willing to talk about them.

The same seems true of our values concerning consumption and the environment. 82 per cent of Canadians believe that most of us are wasteful, buying much more than we will ever need. 86 per cent of us profess deep concern for the environment and 51 per cent believe that their consumption has a negative effect on the environment.

The survey also shows that 88 per cent of us believe that “protecting the environment requires us to make major changes in the way we live,” but we don’t think that others feel this way. If only we discussed our deepest values, we might learn that almost all of us espouse values that could lead to an ecological revolution.

Of course there will be people who will mock us for our conviction and sometimes our age-mates will put pressure on us to act against our deepest values. But the bright side to this darkness is that we get to pick our peers, our age cohorts and our friends. If we hang with people who only think about getting ahead and acquiring stuff we will begin to accept that behavior as quite normal, even desirable.

We don’t, however, have to hang with cynics. We can find friends who share our values and who can help us practice what we preach and of course, preach that which we practice.

We can, if we choose, use such pressures to fuel the necessary ecological revolution of our 21st century. In his book, “Biologic”, David Wann suggests that once we get the design right “our society can be powered by peer pressure alone.”

So, now is the time to silence our silences and speak up for the values that we really do believe in — spiritual, social, environmental.

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