Social Pressure as a Moral and Political Tool

[This essay was written in response to criticisms made against me for remarks favoring the use of social pressure to oppose sexism within the Internet newsgroup alt.quotations in 1998.]

1. What is "social pressure"?

Social pressure consists of the comments, criticisms, attitudes and emotions of people directed against other people who do or say things that those employing the pressure do not approve of. It is a method of changing and controlling the behavior of other people, both on the "micro" level (i.e. among acquaintances, friends and family), and also on the "macro" level (as a technique of social engineering and control).

All societies, and all individuals in every society, employ social pressure extensively. At times we all criticize other people, and we all have feelings and attitudes about the actions and remarks of others which we express (verbally or non-verbally) from time to time. There are social conventions—which vary from society to society, and place to place within each society—about when and how to do this.

The concept of social pressure is morally and political neutral in that such pressure can be used for any purpose, good or bad, and to promote or attack any moral or political position whatsoever. But although the tool is morally and politically neutral, and although everyone uses the tool to varying degrees, the attitude of different individuals towards the use of social pressure varies tremendously.

There are plenty of people who say they oppose the use of social pressure, either completely, or "almost always". Some people are quite vociferous about this, and even view any conscious use of social pressure as some kind of "totalitarianism". The ironic thing, of course, is that in their criticism and disapproval of "social pressure" they are also employing their own social pressure. This is in fact characteristic of those who oppose the use of social pressure; they only recognize it when it is being used by others—and specifically those who they disagree with—, never when they use it, or when it is being used to support attitudes and beliefs they approve of. In short, those who oppose the use of social pressure are invariably hypocritical in their opposition—though they never seem to realize it.

2. Social pressure is an alternative to force.

One thing that should be realized by those who unthinkingly attack the tool of social pressure—even when it is being used for a good purpose—is that it is an alternative to the use of force to control the behavior of others. And I think most people would agree that it is a better alternative than using force—when it can be made to work.

For those who have the power to employ it, force is always a fall-back choice when other techniques of social control fail to work—and when the matter at issue is important enough (e.g., controlling crime, or maintaining the ruling class in power). But only the stupid use force when there are better methods available. Moreover, sometimes force is inappropriate (or wrong—not that that matters to some people) when alternative methods are not.

Bourgeois society relies, as its ideologists proudly proclaim, on the "rule of law" to control the behavior of people. But laws are always backed up by force, and so relying on the rule of law is only a slightly-camouflaged way of relying on force to control the populace. I am not saying that laws are unnecessary; even in socialist society we will need laws, and there too they will be backed up by force when need be. That is the nature of all laws. "A law is not a law without coercion behind it." (Attributed to President James Garfield)

But bourgeois society relies excessively on laws to control people's behavior. "Gates' Law: If there is not a law, there will be." (W. I. E. Gates) I read recently that there are now 130,000 pages of federal laws. "The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws." (Tacitus, Annals) By that standard, the U.S. is the most corrupt state in history, by far.

In a future socialist society, we do not want to do things that way. While many laws will still be necessary (though fewer and fewer as we advance toward communism), we want to reform and control society not primarily through laws (and force) but rather through the much better techniques of education and social pressure. We want to institute a society where the people themselves truly do rule, and where they rule in ways which are most beneficial to the people as a whole. Among other things, that means that those from among the masses who go against the interests of the masses in general are restrained and corrected in the mildest way possible. And that means primarily through social pressure and supervision by the rest of the masses—when this can be made to work.

And in most cases, it can be made to work.

3. Social pressure is powerful!

Social pressure is a very powerful thing. Human beings are social animals, and very few people can withstand any constant social pressure directed against them. In fact, about the only really effective way of withstanding such pressure is by identifying with a different social group.

As I write these lines (June 1998) I am engaged in an experiment in the Internet newsgroup alt.quotations (which exists to post and discuss interesting quotations on all topics). There have been a number of sexist and anti-women quotations posted over the past few months (and not for the legitimate purpose of opposing them or their authors!); I and others (mostly women) have criticized these quotations and the people who posted them. For a while we seemed to have the two worst sexist culprits on the run, but unfortunately a number of other males came forward to support the two—not so much openly supporting their sexism (which the two themselves do not admit to), but on "free speech" grounds, or because criticism of sexism is supposedly "inappropriate" in this newsgroup, etc. This had the effect of showing the two that they had support, and that there was at least a vocal subset of the newsgroup regulars which backed them up. It was interesting to note that as soon as they saw this support they both came back with some more "in-your-face" sexist quotes!

The battle is not over yet, but it appears that the attempt at the present time to establish a new ideological climate less hostile to women in this one newsgroup, where sexism would be jumped on, and therefore would be lessened via social pressure, has failed. But, again, the reason it has apparently failed is that the social pressure was not intensive and broad enough (only a handful of critics), and because the culprits found refuge in a supporting social pressure of a reactionary sub-group.

So although social pressure can be powerful and effective, it is most effective when there are not opposing social pressures (at least within the milieu in question), and when it is intense and coming from lots of different people, from all sides.

4. The purpose of social pressure is not to silence people, but to win people over—though not necessarily the same people!

In the sexism-in-the-newsgroup case, I was accused of trying to silence people I disagreed with. Actually, as I pointed out, I am glad when the wrong views that pervade society at large come up there, because it gives me an opportunity to criticize them (and hopefully get others to join in with that criticism). In other words, like other revolutionaries, I try to turn all the battles around me into schools of struggle so that the problems of society as a whole can be successfully tackled.

It is true that the more limited aim in this case was to stop, or at least cut down on, the expression of sexist remarks and attitudes in this one newsgroup. Ideally this would happen because the offenders saw the error of their ways, changed their attitudes, and no longer wanted to make sexist posts. That is, we really were trying to silence sexist remarks, but not the individuals posting those sexist remarks—because we hoped to cause them to recogize what they were really doing, change their ways, and make all their future postings from a perspective showing more respect for women.

However, I readily admit that such ideal outcomes do not always happen when social pressure is applied. Sometimes the culprits will just slink away from the intense pressure and go hang out where their views are not being constantly attacked. Other times, people will in fact just fall silent, or even perhaps feign agreement. If the primary goal is to win over those few individuals, then their falling silent or slinking away (let alone their feigning agreement) is a very bad result. It means that the goal of winning them over has failed so far, and makes it difficult to continue working on them.

It is true, though, that if the primary purpose of the social criticism is more to win over the middle forces watching the struggle, or more to draw in additional people into such struggles and teach them to fight for their class and collective interests, then if those results really do occur it is less of a defeat that you don't win over the actual targets of the struggle. It is still unfortunate, of course, that they are not won over, but we do have to recognize that not everyone can be won over all at once. (And also that there are a few die-hards who can never be won over.)

One of the goals is always to win over those in error, and not just to silence them. But if other, perhaps more important, goals are achieved, then the application of social pressure has been a good thing even if the actual targets are merely silenced instead of being won over. There is no inconsistency or hypocrisy involved in recognizing this.

In the quotations newsgroup case, if the two major culprits had just stopped making sexist posts and that is all that happened, then it would not have been much of a victory—and may in fact have been more of a negative thing than a positive thing overall. But even if they were just "silenced" on the issue, without changing their attitudes in any way, the whole episode of struggle could have still been a very good thing if one or more of the following results occurred:

I suspect that possibly the first three of these broader goals may have been achieved, at least to some small degree, and therefore probably some good came out of the struggle even though the two worst culprits were not corrected in any way.

In judging the correctness of any struggle we must always consider all the results which ensue from it, not just the limited immediate goal.

5. But is it right to try to win people over—even to a correct position—via social pressure? Shouldn't we just use reason and good evidence?

It is crazy to imagine that people are strictly rational creatures. Human beings are not totally irrational, either, but it is really foolish to believe that they are entirely rational, or to try to change human behavior and society based on that false assumption.

Just how rational individual people are depends on their education, what they have learned (and truly absorbed) about scientific technique, the rationality of the people around them (their milieu), what form of society they live in, and so forth. Given that most people's education is laughably poor, that their understanding of science and scientific methods is close to nonexistent, that they have little or no training in logic and how to think rationally, and that they live in a capitalist society whose rulers depend on keeping the masses ignorant and fooled in order to hang on to their privileges (and constantly bombard the masses with lies through their control of education and the media), it is hardly any wonder that people often tend to be ignorant and quite irrational. It is inevitable in contemporary capitalist society.

Why do people believe what they do? Is it because we scientifically examine all the reasonable possibilities, carefully sift the evidence, use logic and the techniques of rational thinking to select the best answer? No, regretfully, it is just not this way most of the time in current society. Mark Twain put it this way:

Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.[1]

Twain overstates the case just a bit! Some people do manage to do some thinking on their own and thus escape some of the beliefs they are raised with, indoctrinated with, and find all around them—but only a tiny minority in our current unscientific age. Most people do in fact hold the beliefs they were indoctrinated with in their youth, and which are constantly reinforced in them by their social milieu. And that is just to say that most people hold the beliefs they do because of social pressure, both the social pressure applied in their youth and that which is continually directed at them as adults.

Since people basically believe what they do because of social pressure, it you want to change what they believe, and help them discover the truth about social reality, you must of necessity seek to apply your own counter-acting social pressure. That is just the plain fact of the matter. By all means, marshal all the evidence, logic, and rational arguments you can as well—but just don't expect them to be very broadly effective! (I would even wager that in many cases the effectiveness of rational argument comes more from the concomitant social pressure than it does the actual reasoning and evidence presented.)

The masses have great strengths, but they also have great weaknesses. Among them are many brilliant ideas—and many foolish ideas. There is great rationality, and great irrationality. We Marxists are indeed trying to make them (and ourselves!) more rational, more scientific in their (and our) approach to the world, more cognizant of their own class interests and how these interests may be advanced. But we must also start our work with the people as they now are, as we find them in a backward, unscientific society.

In the future we hope to make people more rational, and as they become more rational we expect to rely more on rational argument to change people's thinking and actions, and to rely less on social pressure. But never forget—we still live in primitive times! And in primitive times you are often forced to use primitive methods.

6. "But Scott! How can you, as a Marxist, as a member of a tiny minority in this society that is itself subject to tremendous hostile social pressure, champion the use of social pressure?! Doesn't it work more against your ideas now than for them?"

I certainly do not champion social pressure no matter how it is used! Social pressure is in fact like any tool; it can be used for bad purposes as well as for good purposes. When it used for bad purposes I of course oppose its use. There is nothing inconsistent about this. I also think hammers are fine tools, but that doesn't mean I am forced to approve of maniacs going around and hitting people over the head with them!

It's true that at the present time most of the social pressure employed in society is a negative thing, constantly reinforcing backward ideas. And in no way do I support its use for any purpose that goes against the interests of the people.

But it is a simple matter of fighting fire with fire. Sure the tool is mostly used for negative purposes at present, but it can also be used for positive purposes, and it is wrong to refrain from doing so. It is wrong to refuse to use any tool which can advance the people's interests and their struggle towards liberation.

How can I expect that the positive use of social pressure by a small minority can hope to counteract all of its extensive negative use? Well, by itself it cannot, and I don't fool myself into thinking otherwise. We Marxists are well aware of the fact that all the good reasons we put forward, all the rational argument, and all the social pressure we can muster—all of that put together—is still not enough to change most people's thinking and change society. Something more is needed, namely people's own experience, especially negative experience in times of social crisis. And capitalism—being the wonderfully obliging system that it is—can be counted on to provide these vicious negative experiences from time to time.

It is true that all the negative experiences of war, imperialist aggression, economic depression, crises arising from the massive destruction of the environment, the oppression of women and minority peoples, and so forth, are also not enough by themselves to fully wake up the masses and cause them to overthrow an exploitive and oppressive system. But when you add this "experience" factor to a proletarian pole of leadership putting forward a genuine alternative in the time of acute social crisis, demonstrating some ability to lead the masses in struggle, putting forward ample exposure of the crimes of the capitalist enemy, putting forward reasoned arguments and plenty of supporting evidence for what we say, and also powerful political slogans and as much social pressure as we can manage—then you have something really effective. Then you might even have a social revolution and the creation of a new society truly capable of eliminating all the horrors of capitalism.

Social pressure really comes into its own in the early years of socialist society. At that point the old capitalist ruling class has lost its control of the government, the news media, and has largely lost control of education and many other spheres of public influence. If a revolution does actually take place it is only because the great majority of the masses support it, and thus you have a situation where progressive, positive social pressure can and should be applied against the relatively few backward elements, people who want to return to the old oppressive society, people who drag their heals resisting the further revolutionary advance of society, and so forth.

In the early days of the Russian revolution, Lenin called upon revolutionaries and the masses to "hound" the bourgeoisie that still existed though it had been knocked from power. "Hound them the way they hounded us!" he said. In other words, apply the most intense social pressure against them, to prevent them from returning to power.

If socialism can be consolidated—partly through the massive use of social pressure—long enough to bring up at least one new generation that is capable of truly thinking rationally, of investigating society to see what is truly in its own working class interests, and of taking a leading hand in the running of such a society, then we will have won, and won for good—even though a lot will yet remain to be done. It is not easy of course; the international working class has failed in its first two attempts to do this (in Russia and China), and in both cases a new exploiting class grew up within the revolutionary party and stole the revolution before a sufficient fraction of the masses were sufficiently educated and empowered. We have learned a lot from these two bitter experiences, and will not make the same mistake again.

But even today, in the midst of a backward society—backward politically, morally, and scientifically (as far as the thinking of the masses goes)—there is an important role for social pressure. All revolutionaries and all progressive people should endeavor to use this tool, should gain practice in using it themselves, and should help the masses to use it to defend their interests. We have an obligation to do this; we would be failing the people if we did not do so.

7. Conclusion.

Social existence requires the existence of social pressure. All societies, and tendencies within society employ it, and must employ it if they are to survive. Social pressure is a necessary tool in the transformation of society, and in the consolidation of any new society. Social pressure is indispensable.

If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc., from the world of the senses and the experience gained in it, the empirical world must be arranged so that in it man experiences and gets used to what is really human and becomes aware of himself as man. If correctly understood interest is the principle of all morals, man's private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity. If man is unfree in the materialist sense, i.e., is free not through the negative power to avoid this or that, but through the positive power to assert his true individuality, crime must be not punished in the individual, but the anti-social source of crime must be destroyed, and each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being. If man is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must be made human. If man is social by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the strength of his nature must be measured not by the strength of separate individuals but by the power of society. (Karl Marx)[2]

—Scott H.


[1] Mark Twain, "Corn-Pone Opinions", in Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race, ed. by Janet Smith, (NY: Hill & Wang, 1994 (1962)), p. 24.

[2] Karl Marx, The Holy Family (1845), chapter VI, section 3d. A slightly different translation is given in Karl Marx/Frederick Engels Collected Works, vol. 4, (NY: International Publishers, 1975), pp. 130-131.

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