Societal Education

Stephen Richer
Societal Education
Numbers 22:2 — 25:9
June 25, 2010

Everybody’s doin’ a brand new dance now
(C’mon baby do the loco-motion)
I know you’ll get to like it
If you give it a chance now
(C’mon baby do the loco-motion)
My little baby sister can do it with ease
It’s easier than learning your a b c’s
So come on, come on,
Do the loco-motion with me

Peer pressure—termed social influence in this essay—is commonly held to be a bad thing. Drug and alcohol abuse are the most oft cited negative examples of peer pressure, but modern society is generally averse to anything termed “group think.” Students are taught to resist making appeals to authorities; people who choose their politics to correspond with those of their family or church are derided, and Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride is portrayed as pathetic because she orders her the eggs the same way as whichever man she is currently with.

I generally agree with this assessment, but societal influence—or societal education—should not always be considered a bad thing. Much of what we learn for right or wrong has not been derived from a scientific process, but simply because somebody (usually a Mom) and what she is substantiated by conventional wisdom. We know from an early age that lying is generally wrong. But we know this not because we’ve applied some principle of Kantian universality, a cost-benefit analysis on lying, or because we’ve uncovered some simple truth, but simply because everyone says so. Some of these commonly held beliefs have made it into law, some are unwritten laws, taboos, or mores, and some simply make up our consciousness.

The power of the consciousness is demonstrated in this week’s Torah Portion. The prophet Balaam is summoned to curse the Israelites. He tries three times, but each time he fails, instead blessing the people of Israel. Why? Literally, it’s because God controls his voice. But if we abstract this a bit, we can see that it is God’s laws, rules, and the world that he has set that has founded the consciousness of Balaam. Deep down, from his socially learned wisdom, he knows it is wrong to curse the Israelites. He doesn’t have a specific reason for feeling this way; he hasn’t interviewed all 600,000 plus Israelites and determined them to be, collectively, a good people. Rather, his consciousness has been formed by the world around him, and it prevents him from cursing the Israelites.

And this is the power of religion. The Judeo-Christian tradition is the cornerstone of Western Civilization. That which hasn’t been inscribed in our laws has been inscribed in our consciousness by the moral code that pervades society. Through our peers we are pressured into adopting the Judeo-Christian value system.

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