Liberty and Social Conventions

Column by Paul Bonneau.

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I just got done watching, for the second time, “The Fierce Wife” on Netflix. This is a series set in Taiwan, about a marriage that is failing. Yes, I suppose it is in the genre of soap operas, and on a subject that is about as ordinary as it gets; but it is a soap opera for people who don’t like soap operas. I watched it for a second time because I wanted to catch the nuances I missed the first time around, and particularly to watch the powerful and moving acting by the lead female character, Xie An-Zhen, played by Sonia Sui--but all the character performances were excellent. This show will stick with you, trust me. Just a note: The first episode is a bit choppy and not that impressive, but it just grows and grows from there. Skip ahead and watch episode 31, just to see how amazing this show can be.

I found an English-language version of the haunting theme song here.

An interesting side issue that is developed in this series is what happens to the husband (spoiler alert!) after he has first, ruined his marriage, and then divorced his wife. He quits his job as an executive in a cosmetics corporation due to criticism there, then finds he is unemployable elsewhere because of his actions against his wife, despite his acknowledged excellent performance in his job. It seems (at least in this TV version of Taiwanese society) that corporate owners want their executives to be good family men.

This general subject reminds me of another series the wife and I watched, “Downton Abbey”, where one of the servant girls got pregnant out of wedlock, and found herself unemployed and shunned by decent society. Of course in that case, being an English production rather than a Chinese one, the point made by the story line was how unfair and obsolete such sanctions against adultery were--which may partially explain why England is in such a mess these days.

John Stuart Mill railed against community standards or social pressures just as much as he did against government control, in his book “On Liberty”--if I remember correctly. Perhaps, such pressures being more ubiquitous and harsh when he wrote, than they are now, it seemed a reasonable position to take. How can one do as one pleases if social pressures won’t allow it? But I have to wonder, if it’s not possible to go too far in the opposite direction? Could social pressures be a necessary ingredient for liberty to flourish?

What if everybody does what he pleases, without any regard for what anybody else thinks? Do we end up with nothing but fatherless children, for example? How long is such a society going to remain free?

Keep in mind that social pressure, shunning, etc. are all manifestations of freedom of association. We are not talking about stoning adulterous women here.

I believe there must be a balance. Social conventions exist for people to be pointed in generally the correct direction, and these conventions derive from traditions long established through tribal and early civilized societies. They became established because they worked, producing a generally good result for the society even if they were harsh on some individuals. Yet, there must be a little “wiggle room” where such conventions can be questioned, challenged, even flouted if necessary. It should be like swimming against the current, though. Liberty, not license....

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