How I Became My Own Man

When I was claiming my assigned aisle seat on the plane back from Florida, the man sitting next to me in the middle queried, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the middle seat?” “No thanks,” I replied. After all, I have seen a man in the aisle sell his seat to a man in the middle for $50. Why on Earth would I give away the Holy Grail (or in deference to my fellow Jews, Holy Matzah) of Seats for free? “Are you sure?” he asked me. “There’s more room for your bag underneath the in-between seat, and it’s closer to the window.” “I’m fine,” I told the salesman, who, with his dogged determination and hollow offers, would be wonderfully well-suited to a lot full of used cars. Of course, upon further examination, I noticed that the Car Salesman was reading a self-help book titled, How to Be Your Own Man, in which he was underlining quite vivaciously. (Of course, by reading the book and getting instruction from another person, he ends up truly being somebody else’s man and not his own.) In addition, the Salesman was also the portly type. As he seemed on the verge of oozing like a jelly donut over his seat and onto mine, my only protection being the flimsy little bar between the two, I assumed he was probably one to be captivated by Dunkin’ Donuts commercials. This man seemed to be both the victim to and perpetrator of society’s cruel cajoling: the “peer pressure” notion so ingrained in our minds. After many diatribes against such pressure, we students eventually make the connection: Peer Pressure = Bad. Unfortunately, when a group attempts to persuade a person into conformity, it refrains from providing a caveat such as, “All right, what we are engaging in at this moment is called peer pressure.” And in the darkness of the group, the individual’s light bulb of realization does not even flicker. For, group psychology cannot be labeled or packaged into a nice little format with guidelines to identify it. To clarify my terms, peer pressure is a phenomenon in group psychology. Group psychology is simply a lack of independent thought, and a lack of independent thought is potentially nothing less than evil. Although I almost certainly will terribly embarrass myself with these examples, I am going to demonstrate exactly how pernicious and ridiculous it is to follow a group. Peer pressure is simply when one person allows another person or group to think for him in any situation, at any time, and at any place. Kindergarten: Baneful group psychology existed even in the early days of my education; the hierarchy became fixed the same way it does in many high schools: into the “Coolios” and “Everyone Else.” I was part of the Everyone Else category. But once, the Coolios approached me and asked me why I was friends with one of my fellow outsiders. “He’s so weird!” they proclaimed. And so, wanting to belong, I spurned my friend. The Coolios did not heed me any more than they had previously, and, well, I’d simply lost one friend and gained nothing. Second Grade: My best friend, who apparently had a penchant for self-urination, informed me that if I wanted to maintain his friendship, I would have to urinate on myself. Of course, being the insecure second grader that I was, what else could I do? I wanted my best friend’s approval. It was not My Driest Hour. Ninth Grade: A weekend or two ago, some friends of mine decided to journey to the graveyard in Andover after the town-imposed curfew for thrills incomprehensible to me. Perhaps they just wanted to test a municipal ordinance or some ghost laws, or maybe they just thought the graveyard was creepy. In any case, it just was a minor misadventure, and nothing that would cause the High Authorities much consternation. Yet, here lay the seedlings of peer pressure. Drawing upon my past lessons, I mustered the strength not to go along, even though it might have meant losing their friendship. And the next day, one of them told me, “Oh, yeah! You were right not to go. It was so dumb…” Frequently, a perfectly normal, intelligent classmate will express a reasonable point about something political. At some subsequent time, I will meet that classmate’s parents and hear them express the same reasonable point. The pressure applied may not be so much peer as it is parental, but the desire to belong to a family is commensurate to the desire to belong to a group of teens. So many people watch the O’Reilly Factor, read The New York Times, or even look at the Commentary section of The Phillipian to have others instruct them in the act of thinking. Or they will think the way that the Democratic Party thinks or the Republican Party thinks. Even these phenomena are symptoms of group psychology and peer pressure. The lemming attitude is precisely what drives us humans downwards. The attitude is to let the group do the thinking for one person. People abdicate their independent thought and essentially hand over their brains to one leader. As time has told us, no leader’s thoughts are better than those of several minds interacting constructively. It is such an attitude that has given rise to the Nazis, cultists, Stalinists, and even Muslim fundamentalists; it is such an attitude that has robbed humans across the globe of their “inalienable” rights. For, who doesn’t want to belong? But, what if the group to which one belongs is wrong? Whether it is a man attempting to convince the teenager next to him to sit in the middle seat or the little boy trying to sway his friend towards self-urination, doing something without a reason is always a pestiferous act. I never did think that “Safety in Numbers” was a wise aphorism.