“One of the good things about being 95? Very little peer pressure.” George Burns.
In a recent overheard discussion about believers baptism among the young, the rather standard objection was raised that a person at 12 years of age is not really an independent thinker, but responding to the expectations of parents and the society around her. The laughing rejoinder was that sometimes decisions we make in our 30’s aren’t that well thought out either, but the conversation did not follow through with that.
I don’t want this to be only about baptism, so I will simply note in passing that how well one understands the conversion experience is only one piece of baptism, and not the most important. Many of us might have impressive or convincing reasons for our atheism, conversion, or confirmation, but none of us have unassailable reasons, and most of us have rather weak ones. It is human nature. One of my reasons for coming back to church was that I was feeling defeated, and nice ladies had given me cookies and said nice things to me there when I was little, and I thought I could count on them to be similarly supportive to a young adult. It was true. One will find few welcomes as warm as going back to a church one grew up in, at least when one is young. If you are forty it might be more complicated. Or not. I’m just guessing on that one.
Peer pressure does not get weaker as we become adults, it becomes stronger. We have much more choice who our peers will be, in our jobs, in our neighborhoods, in our churches and activities. We enter a world in which we influence them, and they us. Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy wrote an essay years ago that it is in our interest to adopt the political and social views of those around us. Our vote and our political voice seldom matters that much, and even less when we are at odds with our culture. We are much more likely to have our minds changed by a friend than an enemy, by a person who agrees with us 90% of the time than by one who agrees with us 10% of the time.
This is seldom a result of formal discussion about issues, but a product of reading similar books and newspapers, listening to the same sermons, podcasts, and music, having children at the same schools or activities, watching the same movies and TV shows – we need not share them very exactly, and all of us will have outlier interests from family and friends. Yet when I sit with people at lunch there will be a solid grouping at a table of 8 social workers who will enter eagerly into a discussion about Game of Thrones or American Idol. When they make any social or political point, either NPR or a late-night comedian will be referenced. The local newspaper or TV station will occasionally be referenced. By doing this they announce, reannounce, and confirm what are the expected sources of entertainment and information. One just knows that many topics are not going to be of general interest and should not be attempted. Things taught at conferences or by invited speakers are not frequently referenced, but they carry great weight. As many of those are highly politicized, however disguised, those are powerful signals as well.
My group of conservatives is not very representative, but all of them will refer to something they have read instead (including Great Courses and audible books). The chip-shot nature of social media bridges this. We usually read words, but they are dramatic, simplistic, and short – and there are frequent links to visual media.
We culturally signal constantly, like birds chirping to announce our location and territory. I have claimed that liberals do it more, and that peer pressure is much more important to them, but I certainly witness conservatives doing it as well, and my impression may be false.
If peer pressure on adults becomes strong enough, we usually change groups or change ideas. Most probably we do this gradually, not in complete reworking of networks. We talk to this friend a bit less and that one a bit more, we beg off from regular golf games or garden club. Or we become less-intense in our support for gay marriage or drug legalisation.