We find ourselves at a stage where there is a constant conflict between the individual and the society. The way our society simultaneously flirts with religion, traditions, modernity, conservatism, and globalization; it has paved the way for confusion and terribly abstract notions of identity and morality. Individual freedom is often defeated by the hands of customs, traditions, and social norms. Man is expected to behave in a way that has passed down the ages, and has qualified as ‘normal’ behavior through repetition and conformity. The benchmarks set up by the majority, regardless of how irrational they might be, are constantly challenging the intellectual, moral, and social developments of individuals. Individuals live and die, but the set of values and beliefs that a society accumulates over time carries on generation after generation.

The idea of a collective consciousness comes into play here. In order to ensure the survival and functioning of a society, the totality of such beliefs and sentiments is spread over each and every thread of society. Everyone is expected to subscribe to a common framework, providing no conflict between things that are considered sacred, or immoral, or lawful. But what happens when this totality grows into a tyranny which limits the individual?

In order to explore this we must look at the works of two sociologists, Ibn Khaldun and Emile Durkheim.

Ibn Khaldun , the Muslim historian active through the 14th century, regarded to be among the founding fathers of modern sociology, touched upon this issue. In his book, Muqaddimah, he talks about the idea of asabiyya or ‘group feeling’ – cohesiveness among the members of a society. Ibn Khaldun builds the argument that group feeling was strong among the Bedouins, who used to spend the majority of their time in the desert. Blood relationships and purity of lineage were some of the key characteristics of the Bedouins, due to which, there was an increased sense of solidarity or oneness between the members. As civilizations progressed, and sedentary societies emerged, this group feeling was compromised. As a result, modern societies were less brave, less safe, and less courageous.

Such group feeling, or the lack of it, is easily identifiable in our society. How many times has it been the case that you go to a family dinner, and you find that there is very little in common between you and your extended family? Conversations automatically curve towards politics or sports, hoping to avoid awkward silences. How many times do you find yourself and people of the previous generation to be poles apart in terms of opinions, aspirations, priorities, and whatever is considered acceptable or unacceptable? While it is nobody’s fault that individuals will turn out be different from one another, it is up to us, as a society, to not let this reality become a source of serious conflict or misunderstanding. It is high time our society realized that episodes of non-conformity or the assertion of individuality are less of a conscious effort to ridicule the norms, and more of a sign of social progress.

Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist active through the 19th century, provides an interesting theory of solidarity. According to him, pre-modern societies employ a solidarity that is based on resemblance of thoughts and actions. “The solidarity that derives from similarities is at its maximum when the collective consciousness completely envelops our total consciousness, coinciding with it at every point. At that moment our individuality is zero.”

He goes on to propose that with the progress of societies, and after the introduction of division of labor, individuals start to appreciate the differences that exist between them. In such societies, there is a greater sense of individuality and personality. Actions become personal, and the burden that the entire society used to put upon the individual is minimized to an extent where freedom of thoughts and actions is encouraged. This society is much less limiting, and more efficient.

These two sociologists might look at this notion of solidarity from differing angles, but both of them concede that the solidarity is bound to transform as societies progress.

One way to escape the tyranny of the majority, in a social context, is to spread the idea of individuality and encourage the development of personalities that are not similar to one another. Every member of the society must have enough space for the free play of his or her initiative, and should not be punished for being different. Unless we are aiming to drop back into primal times, we need to adopt such ideas of progress. When we truly learn to appreciate each other’s differences, we shall enjoy the fruits of progress, and create an environment of respect and tolerance.