Monday, July 10, 2006

Peer Pressure Redux

In my post entitled “Canada at 139: Growing Pains” I related the incident in high school that taught me about the lie of peer pressure. The exact words I used were: “Peer Pressure was a lie. Let me rephrase that: Peer Pressure is a manufactured construct used to excuse people from having to take responsibility for their actions. Peer Pressure is the ultimate “Not Me” excuse. Nobody is at fault when Peer Pressure is to blame.”

As what I was writing about at the time wasn’t entirely related to peer pressure I didn’t expand upon my personal beliefs regarding the issue, but some recent events compel me to do so now. Please bear in mind that this isn’t the result of some grand sociological or historical study; it is the result of my personal experiences: going to school with kids who were doing drugs, smoking, drinking, were involved in various crimes, and in many cases were unable to complete high school.

One of the most fundamental issues that peer pressure addresses is that of free will: are we, as human beings living lives directed by free will or are we predestined to make certain choices – some of which will ultimately lead to pain and suffering, and ultimately, death. If you want to follow a doctrine of predestination that is fine by me, but it removes virtually all accountability that we have as individuals, and leaves you needing some extra support in lieu of the spine that you are surrendering.

We live lives that are defined by the choices we have made and the results of those choices. Life is a series of decisions: do I skip breakfast in order to catch the bus, or risk being late? Do I pack a lunch or eat out? What if the bus I didn’t take ended up being in a terrible accident? Does that mean I somehow “cheated” death by not being on it? No, it means I had breakfast and was on a later bus. If I ended up on the bus in the accident, the question wouldn’t have been asked, unless I said (after the accident), “I should have stayed home for breakfast.”

If we second guess every decision that we make on the basis of “what if”, trying to imagine every conceivable possibility that could result from a decision, we would be paralysed, unable to make even the simplest choices for fear that some great catastrophe was about to beset us. That is no way to live, and nobody really wants to try to live that way (movies like “Final Destination” and the other “cheating death” flicks notwithstanding).

Since the American media has been somehow convinced that the world needs to know about every individual that worked within a fifty-mile radius of the twin towers on September 11th 2001, we have all heard the stories about how life throws curves at us when we are least expecting them (the “I shouldn’t be alive” specials that run, ad nausea, on the specialty channels, regaling us with the tales of certain death had a left turn been made instead of the usual right, and etc.).

Reality is more sobering, though some might be less willing to admit it than others, the truth is that we all know that life doesn’t work that way, but it makes for great television (in their opinion), and what’s more important after all, the truth or ratings? Hearing all of the stories of people who worked in the World Trade Centre and, for some reason that they couldn’t explain, they were either uncharacteristically late for work that day or they didn’t make it in at all. Whatever the cause, it ended up saving their lives.

Or did it? Is this an example of fate in action, or luck, or is it simply just the way things go sometimes? We also know that there were people who were supposed to be on the Titanic, but didn’t make the trip. Think about it this way (this happens to be a pet peeve of mine relating to advertising, but it serves as a good example): if someone says, “I did this, and X happened”, is that necessarily the case? No, it is an error in logic to assume causality.

Take this example, from the world of advertising: If you purchase this product, the Acme Automatic Window Cleaner today for $30, you will SAVE 30% off of the regular price, AND, today only, we will GIVE you another one FREE. This means you receive nearly $80 in merchandise for only $30, a savings of almost $50! … WRONG!!! This is such crap! The “item” is 30% off, so the “original” price is $39.90, but receiving the second for free doesn’t mean that you are “saving” $50. If you had decided to go into a store to purchase this “cleaner” and you paid full price, then you would pay $39.90.

This offer saves you $9.90, hardly the $50 in savings. While you may receive “$80 in merchandise” for a lesser price, to SAVE money means that you have to have something in your possession that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. If you are spending on something hat you don’t necessarily need, you are not saving.

Look at it this way: People die in accidents every day, and people avoid accidents every day. If someone working in the World Trade Centre had started their vacation on Monday, September 10, would that be considered “cheating death”, or merely being lucky? What about the poor schmuck who had been on vacation and returned to work on the Monday, only to be blown-up on the Tuesday; are they any less lucky than any of the other victims? Of course not: they are all equally dead (and, some would say, equally unlucky).

Predestination is a convenient way of pushing free will out of the picture; it lets us off the hook for anything wrong that we may do as, in the end, we were meant to do it from the beginning. All of the important decisions have been made for us, so we may as well sit back so we can wait and see how things turn out. Of course, the alternative to this spineless, reactive life is to be proactive and take on the challenges that we face. When we are faced with a decision that must be made, or any sort of choice, that is when we can fall under the influence of those in whose sphere of influence we have allowed ourselves to be pulled.

It is under the influence of other people’s personality that the issue of peer pressure comes to play its most sinister role. While we may allow ourselves to be swayed by the “peer group” that we want to be accepted by, we still must make the choices that are defined as “peer pressure”. Unless you are dealing with someone who has been raised without the benefit of any form of moral guidance, I would still contend that, in most cases, these “choices” would already be known to those being influenced by the “peer pressure” into making them as being bad choices.

We don’t have to think to hard about this to see examples all around us: we know that it’s wrong to cross the street when the light is red, but we do so, if we decide the risk is acceptable. People decide to drink to excess, and still get into their cars, even when drunk driving has been an illegal act for decades. Why would that choice be made? Are people being pressured to drive while intoxicated? Of course not, and that is the point entirely: just as we do not “have to be pressured” into doing something like smoking, nobody pressures somebody into driving while drunk. It is a choice, and part of the individual’s personality.

One of the best sources of examples for how people understand the ramifications of their choices even while making bad choices is seen through the cameras of the venerable reality TV series Cops. For years now this show has shown some of the stupidest people in the United States doing the most ludicrous things, quite often for no apparent reason.

This afternoon I happened to watch an old episode (the joys of cable) and heard the comment from an officer, “well, you wouldn’t jump off a bridge if your friends told you to, would you?” It may well be the most used comeback by parents to children that are denied something, but what is the real message? Just because somebody else does something doesn’t mean you should. In this case, people had been stealing things from a house that had been foreclosed on by a bank. The neighbours decided that this meant “garage sale”, without having to pay for anything. The police, not surprisingly, disagreed with this opinion.

The one woman that their attention was focused on made the mistake of using as her defence, “well, all of my neighbours were doing it”.

No, that’s not why she decided to steal. She decided to steal (and I’m using that word because it is an ugly word, harsher than “take things from the abandoned property”) because she was jealous of the fact that her neighbours might be getting something for free and if she didn’t do something she would miss out on an opportunity to get something for herself.

Peer pressure in an internal function of our gluttony and avarice, and our lust for the things that we presently don’t have (acceptance by a group included). It comes down to that question: if you knew you could get away with a crime, would you commit it? Some might answer, “well, only if someone wouldn’t get hurt”, but isn’t that the very definition of crime: there is a victim. Someone gets hurt. Others answer, “no, not even if I could get away with it”. Why, we ask, incredulous that someone would pass up such an opportunity, “because, it’s wrong”.

The truth about peer pressure is that we must exert our own pressure: we must become a sphere of influence that shapes the lives of those around us in ways that are positive. There is only one way that people can learn new (or better) ways to act, and that is through observing that behaviour in others. As children we first learn from our parents (or siblings) and our caregivers. It is as we grow older that it becomes vital to have powerful spheres of influence around to offset those that are less desirable, to provide that moral compass for future decisions.

When children grow up learning from positive role models and are themselves treated with respect they have the tools needed to face the challenges that peer pressure poses to them, and this will hopefully provide them with the ability to make the best choices in life. Ultimately, however, the choices are ours to make, and if we start playing the blame game, we all lose.

The same can be said for peer pressure: the next time you feel pressured to do something, push back. If it’s a question of friends not accepting you because you won’t do something stupid, dangerous, or something that might have a detrimental effect on the rest of your life (try getting into law school with a police record), you are more than likely better off without friends like that. Prisons are full of people waiting to befriend you, but does that mean you want to go there, just for the “sense of belonging” … didn’t think so.

No comments: