On Norms, Freedom and Equality

The following essay will probe the nature of social norms, the problematic relationship between the perceived social norms and the ideals of freedom and equality, and finally, if and how the resolution of this problem is possible.

First, i will dissect the colloquial term of “social norm” in order for us to be able to understand it better. In the very term “norm”, there secretly hides this repulsive and scrupulously unsupported assertion that humans, in certain situations, are supposed to act in predefined ways, to the effect that all uniqueness is ultimately labelled aberrant, and individuality virtually curbed. Granted that there had to be some sort of generic code of action in order to protect people’s freedom from the remarkable uniqueness each one of us is bestowed with, why then did it have to go on and curb the very thing it set out to protect us from, as it happens with the social norms? Moreover, if there had to be such a thing as a norm after all, why then did it have to be defined by the society anyway? Because to me, it only seems to suggest, in simpler words, that everybody is the slave to everybody else, obeying unquestioningly the orders (or norms) without needing to understand the rationale behind them which, not to mention, is non-existent more often than not.

One often hears this complaint that genuineness no longer exists in our world and that artificiality has permeated the minds and hearts. You might first question how one defines genuineness. Even if one is not able to articulate it, one often has a clear idea that nature is genuine. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Arts & Sciences, employs the very same construct i.e. nature as that point of reference from where he projects criticisms on Enlightenment – the modernity of his era.

The problem of modernity is that, with all its virtues, it inevitably brings along inequality and takes away the freedom of the masses. Rousseau puts this blame on the two wheels of modernity: arts and sciences. Allow me to illustrate this more clearly by stating the reciprocal statement: Without arts & sciences, equality and freedom would prevail. The most visible of the signs of modernity at work is the birth of sophistication in mannerisms due to which certain more natural ways are qualified to be crude, and once the modernity is victorious, what was natural and hence rampant now exists in the periphery, and the concept of social norm is invented to safely label the crude (or natural) as deviant in order to eradicate it.

Is there a solution to this rapid artificialization of human race? For Rousseau, the answer to this question is a yes, but only if we return to Nature. Thinkers have launched blisteringly sarcastic criticisms on him for having tried to reverse modernity and push mankind back into the Middle Ages, but his solution makes a lot of sense to me. That is, when i recall that Hadith in which Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) implies that Nature is Islam. But i think i need to do a lot of thinking over it before proceeding any further.

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6 thoughts on “On Norms, Freedom and Equality

  1. This is an interesting perspective. I am not familiar with the works of social thinkers like Rousseau. However, the question he raises and the solution he provides according to your essay is not to be dismissed lightly. Thank you for writing about it.

    P.S. Your writing has a silent sophistication about it that really impressed me. I will be on the lookout for your next posts.

    1. One of the best things about Rousseau is that his writings, free from the philosophical dryness as one might expect therein, almost verge on being poetic especially his Discourse on the Arts & Sciences۔ He’s very convincing when he makes the case for:
      دوڑ پیچھے کی طرف اے گردش ایام تو
      Should make a good read for aspiring-dragon-tamers-turned-chemical-engineers. BTW, a mechanical engineer here. Nice meeting you!

      1. Ah, I see. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for bringing Rousseau’s thoughts to my notice.
        Mechanical engineers are much cooler than chemical engineers haha. And it’s great to meet you too.

        P.S. I can’t read Urdu or zer-zabar-less Arabic

  2. I hope you’ll continue this, Sarosh, this piece of writing was quite intriguing. And I quite agree with your last paragraph.
    I’d like for you to go in detail about that.

    1. Thanks, Hiba, in-shaa-Allah. I was actually searching for a link that brings modernity in a dialogue with Islam primarily because i am of the view that Islam, while it encourages man to discover his nature i.e. self (Man ‘arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa Rabbahu), places a great emphasis on “Fikr” at the same time. Modernity claims to rest itself on more-or-less the same foundation i.e. rationality. Though contemporary materialist rationality is in no way the exact meaning of Fikr, it still has a great deal of what Fikr was supposed to be. I see the possibility of a dialogue here.
      Yes, Islam wants people to return to nature by consciously opting for it with an enlightened mind and not because this is where the Tradition takes them ultimately. Hopefully you can connect the dots yourself. I’ll iA post my conclusions on this soon.

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