Philosophical Post #2356: Lady Audley’s Secret and Why We Let Society Govern Us

(WARNING: This might make your brain hurt)

We just finished Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in my grad class this past week (and, by just finished, I mean that since it is a summer class, we spent all of two five hour class periods on it). The novel, at the time, was basically categorized as a ‘dime story novel’, sensational fiction, in which the reader spends the entire time, following Robert Audley while he tries to uncover the disappearance of his ‘friend’ (I use the term ‘friend’ loosely) and expose Lady Audley’s scandalous secret simultaneously (I won’t spoil her secret to you in the event that you actually plan on leisurely reading this novel sometime). One quote in particular that stuck with me deals with the disconnect between what human nature desires and what society begs. Robert Audley thinks, “We want to root up gigantic trees in a primeval forest, and to tear their huge branches asunder in our convulsive grasp; and the utmost that we can do for the relief of our passion is to knock over an easy chair, or smash a few shillings worth of Mr. Copeland’s manufacture”.

What does this big, long, verbose quote mean? To me, it speaks to the disconnect of Victorian society (and even relevant to our own society today) about how we wantto have big temper tantrums and instead, society suppresses us, and all we can do is “kick over an easy chair”; it is natural human tendency to want to uproot a whole forest of trees, to kick over whatever we see in sight, to use foul language and come unglued. But, for some unknown reason, society governs us, gives us social repercussions for these animalistic desires, tells us we must suppress our emotions, and therefore, we can only let out a little tuff.

Why does society dictate these social constructions to us? Why, when we are angry, we must swallow our violent fumes and scream silently in our pillow instead? Why, when we are intensely attracted to someone, must we play games?

It is interesting, because like time, like laws, these social constructions of appropriate norms are merely made up, fabricated, invisible, not real, intangible. The concept of ‘time’ actually doesn’t exist. Sure, time passes, but as humans, we need to create order, so we create calendars, we create clocks, we create appointments. But, whether it is 5 o’clock now or 5 o’clock in two hours from now is actually arbitrary. Laws exist in the same form. There really is no physical shield that prevents us from speeding. There is no iron torch or electric fence that forbids us from adultery. A law is just an idea, something that is written down, internalized in our society, and therefore, it becomes real. These social norms are the exact same. There is nothing tangibly preventing me from using my salad fork in place of my soup spoon. No one tackles me if I call an elder by their first name rather that “Sir” or “Ma’am”. But yet, as a society, we create these social constructs and we abide by the rules, even though there technically nothing forcing us to.

So, why dowe perpetuate and exist in these social norms? Why do we not speed, even though the law of speeding doesn’t technically exist? Why do we prevent ourselves from stealing from Wal-Mart, even though technically the punishment might be a ding on our record, a court date, some money, and maybe some community service (all of which are also socially constructed and intangible records of our human existence)? Why don’t we let ourselves fall into a violent outburst of anger when our human nature craves it? Why do we follow rules, when rules don’t really actually exist?

I think, in part, it has to do with fear. Fear that society will frown upon us, shake her finger at us, and reject us. Research has suggested that over the billions of years humans have existed, while our brain stem has stayed the same, our cerebrums and other parts associated with socialization have grown. If we are looking at human nature and who we are as the root of existence, I think this suggests that we are social creatures and one of our main drives/goals in life IS to be accepted. And, we are willing to do anything to get that admission into “the group”, even if that means sacrificing a bit of ourselves and suppressing what our souls instinctual crave to get there.

The question is, what WILL really happen to you if you buck social norms? What will happen if you wear white before Memorial Day? What will happen if you post an unconventional status on Facebook? What will happen if you reveal your true passions for someone instead of playing the game? Why do we let ourselves be governed by something that isn’t really real?

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