Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Double-Edged Sword of Social Influence

For all the talk about individuality, individual freedom, and individual capacity, the inescapable conclusion that the observant mind reaches is that individuals are not nearly so independent as they like to believe they are. Humans are, unarguably, social creatures who are profoundly impacted by the people they associate with. While some people are more malleable than others, and one gender is more prone to be adaptable than the other, the simple truth remains, that all of us are both profoundly and directly impacted by the people that we associate with, whose ideas we, to some extent, internalize.

On the micro level, this is why there is much wisdom in choosing who one associates with. Often you will find yourself adopting similar mannerisms, verbal expressions, and interests as those you spend much time with. The morality and behaviors of those in your social groups affect your own personal values. You become more like those that you spend time with. This is true not only of those that you spend time with in person, but also of those people that you indirectly associate with by reading their writings and contemplating their opinions. In the Scripture it is written that, "He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm." (Prov. 13:20) Similarly it is written, "Do not be deceived: "Bad company corrupts good morals." (1 Cor. 15:33) For this reason, it is important to be vigilant and highly-aware of how the people in your life are impacting you. Apart from having positive peer pressure and people who are good role models to follow, it is extremely challenging to cultivate and maintain Godly morals and a healthy view on life. With a positive social circle, it becomes easy and natural to improve and whole-heartedly pursue personal growth. With a negative social circle, it becomes quite easy to fall into similar ways of acting and poor ways of perceiving life.

On the macro level, when considering a society as a whole, individuals do not have as much impact over their destinies as they wish. Societal values and paradigms, to a certain extent, directly impact one's own way of thinking. The views and values of a society, as conveyed through media, and perpetuated by those who buy into the prevailing paradigms, affect everyone in a society. Not only is the moral and cultural baseline established as the societal mean, but even the outliers are affected by aggregate social values. Churches are not isolated from the cultural forces at work within a society. Academic institutions are not free from the philosophical presuppositions of its faculty and students. Political institutions are not untainted by the private morality of politicians. Large corporate entities are not unaffected by the vices of those who work for them and direct their corporate actions. And so, due to the fundamentally interconnected nature of a society, the direction a nation is headed is, for the most part, a completely self-reinforcing one. Positive values and paradigms result in the continual betterment of both a society as a whole, and the many parts of a society, including individuals. Harmful values and paradigms that are broadly held set in motion a downward spiral that cannot be held back by a few lone outliers. A society stands or falls together. Individuals stand or fall based on the society that they are part of.

The power of social influence, both on the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels, is something that should never be underestimated or neglected. The interconnectedness and self-reinforcing nature of social relationships yields a powerful force that can be used for much good or can cause great evil. It is for this reason that God primarily deals with groups of people corporately, rather than with people as individuals. His covenant with the nation of Israel is one that was with the entire nation of Israel, and not simply with the individuals who comprise the nation of Israel. They stood or fell together. God either blessed the whole nation, or cursed and brought destruction upon the whole nation. In the same way, as America has rejected God, Christian morality, and righteous living, so our nation is in a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Unless there is a societal repentence and return to the foundational principles upon which America was founded, there is no hope for our nation. Where once the power of social influence was used for good, and established a nation that was obedient to God, now the power of social influence hastens our ruin.

If, as individuals, we wish to have any impact on those in our social circles and our society as a whole, we must recognize the power of social influence. We must be shrewd and circumspect in recognizing how social influence impacts us. We must establish small groups and communities that value the right things and live righteously. There must be firm consequences for those who hold wrong views or engage in wrong behaviors. Men, especially, must seek to be godly and reponsible leaders within their families and social circles. Tolerance and easy forgiveness must be eschewed, and virtue firmly pursued, else there is no hope. As philosopher Edmund Burke insightfully stated, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." The beautiful counterpoint to that statement is, when good men boldly take action to pursue righteousness and exhort others to do the same, social change becomes possible. Yet, it is a task requiring much strength and perseverence. To reverse the tide requires no less than a miracle. The momentum presently carries our society at a breakneck pace towards the brink of destruction.

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