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Everyone needs to express themselves. Many in society are fighting vigorously to make individuals conform to society’s standards. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Emerson, JFK, and Ken Kesey all realized the fact that self-expression is one of the most essential aspects to a successful life. Ken Kesey, through one flew over the cuckoo’s nest mirrors the societal struggle between conformity and self-expression and alludes to the pitfalls which result in school, church, and life when society tries to eliminate self-expression.
The actions that Nurse Ratched takes throughout the book symbolizes and mirrors the way society teaches individuals to conform. Kasey conveys, by punishing the characters who express their ideas, that in one flew over cuckoo’s nest conformity is valued and rewarded over self-expression and individualism. Nurse Ratched shows her lack of respect when she says, “If Mr. Taber chooses to act like a child, he may have to be treated as such. We’ve tried to be kind and considerate with him. Obviously, that’s not the answer. Hostility, hostility, that’s the thanks we get. You can go, Mr. Taber, if you don’t wish to take your medication orally.” The patients’ standard of living is directly tied to their ability to express themselves. When Nurse Ratchet shuts down Mcmurphy’s attempt to express his frustration she is directly shutting down his ability to change his circumstance. In One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, when patients lose their individuality they lose their freedom.
Through the character Nurse Ratched, Ken Kesey reinforces the idea that conformity and cooperation is to be strived for. She features a “Plaque of cooperation” in her area which clearly illustrates the qualities she values. She rapidly tries to suppress McMurphy’s individuality when she says, “Mr. McMurry, could you come here please.” By refusing to call him by his name she is disrupting him as a person, and his identity.
In stark contrast to Nurse Ratched, Ken Kesey uses the character McMurphy to champion the benefits of self-expression and individuality. McMurphy is a character with little regard for societal norms. He refuses to accept his situation and instead fights to change his surroundings. In Ken Kesey’s book the control panel symbolized the patients struggle to express themselves. “I could lift it all right. Well, hell, right over there you are: that thing Billy’s sittin’ on. That big control panel with all the handles and cranks. That’s hard enough, ain’t it? And it damn well should be heavy enough.”(Kesey 96). Just as the patients struggle to express their ideas, McMurphy struggles to lift the control panel. The control panel symbolizes the journey the characters go through.
One of the clearest examples of non-conformity in One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest can be seen when McMurphy nonchalantly passes out pornographic playing cards. “Well say, here we go, I brought along my own deck, just in case, has something in it other than face cards – and check the pictures, huh? Everyone different. Fifty-two positions.” This sets the stage for how McMurphy will act going forward in the book. He inspires the patients to reject the status quo. Because of his repeated refusal to conform the patients eventually change their situation and create a better life for themselves.
Society is extremely effective at teaching the individual to conform. In a famous experiment called Solomon Asch conformity experiment, researchers set out to investigate the extent to which social pressure could cause a person to conform. The study took place in 1951 and had 50 male students participate in a ‘vision test’.
“Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last. There were 18 trials in total, and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails (called the critical trials). Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view. Asch’s experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a ‘real participant’.
When the participants were under no pressure to conform, less than one percent of them chose the incorrect answer, however, seventy five percent of the people answered incorrectly at least once when under social pressure to conform. The experiment, which model’s society and the story of One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest, shows that people often know what the best course of action is. However, individuals frequently make choices which will be a detriment to themselves based solely on pressure from others. Researchers, in this experiment, stated, “Most [participants] said they did not believe their answers but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought of as peculiar” (Asch, 4). Just as in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, participants in the experiment changed their behavior due to pressure.
A universal struggle exists between the freedom for individuals to express themselves, and society rewarding conformity. Society does not practice but rather claims to value individuality. In school, politics, and church, conformity is rewarded. John F. Kennedy famously recognized this phenomenon when he said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” JFK recognized the fact that despite the appearance of individuality, people in society were under constant pressure to conform.
The first-place children learn to suppress their individuality and creativity is in school. In the first-grade class room, teachers are presented with students exploding with energy. In this environment, it is seen as necessary to create rules, which limit student behavior. “The findings revealed that teachers perceived student problem behaviors as those behaviors involving rule-breaking” (Sun & Shek, 1). This step is the beginning of a long process society puts individuals through which teach kids to conform. This process quickly becomes dangerous when leaders do not have their followers’ best interests in mind.
One such leader was Adolf Hitler, who recognized the fact that children are very moldable and susceptible to this sort of conditioning and took advantage of it in his rise to power. He said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future” (Adolf Hitler, 2). The events that arose out of Hitler’s regime showcase the drastic effects which can result when individuals in a society stop questioning authority. The Nazi regime was a massive disaster which could easily repeat itself if we continue teaching conformity.
The pattern of teaching people to conform continues throughout high school. ‘They decide to teach us about people like Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington… We learn about how these people expressed themselves and conquered and we can’t even express ourselves in the hallway” (anonymous college student). This student points out the irony that many high schoolers are faced with. High school students are forced to learn about individuals throughout history who questioned authority and refused to conform. They are then expected to adhere to a strict uniform which suppresses personal choice, self-expression, and individuality.
In one flew over the cuckoo’s nest the patients are akin to children in school. They are required to adhere to a strict schedule, strict uniform, and given very little freedom to express their individuality. The patients, like children, are mentally deficient and seen as unable to make decisions on their own. Just as a classroom which restricts personal choice leads to underperformance, so do the conditions in the ward. Ken Kesey draws our attention to these problems through the character Nurse Ratched. She implements harsh rules and a strict schedule which suppress the patient’s ability to express themselves. “Rules? PISS ON YOUR FUCKING RULES!”. Kesey uses McMurphy ‘s insubordination in an incident between Rachet and her ward rules to teach the audience about the importance of individualism and the impudence of compliance. ‘What would it be like if everybody was to brush their teeth whenever they felt like it?’ McMurphy asks sarcastically, aware of how Ludacris such a pointless rule is. This altercation shows how regimented Nurse Retched was in her approach to running the ward. We see how important order is to Nurse Ratchet when Billy Babbitt killed himself. Nurse Ratchet was more focused on sticking to the schedule then helping her patients. “Nurse Retched: The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.” This caused chaos leading to McMurphy, an avid fighter for individuality, trying to strangle her. All of this could have been avoided if the patients were granted even a sliver of freedom and individuality.
In a study led by Phyllis Moen from the University of Minnesota found that best buy found that employees who were given flexibility over their time were more productive, less stressed, and healthier overall.
Throughout History we see people using power to make others conform. The most notable example of this is Hitler and his Nazi party. He created the Nazi’s and used propaganda to encourage conformity to this standard. Those who did not fit into his mold were villainized and made outcasts. To further grow his power, he went on to villainize those who disagreed with him. He portrayed the Jews as a threat. This gave him the justification he needed to grow his power. Those who did not conform to his ideology he had killed. While this is an extreme example it isn’t isolated. Stalin used the same techniques to gain power.
In Society, just as in life, people are divided into groups. In life people are often labeled as “Mexican,” “Smart,” and “Dumb” just as in the book people are divided into groups. McMurphy breaks down the barriers dividing them and treated all individuals as if they were an interesting person with a personality. He talks to Broman, whom people believed was unable to talk, and became the first person to realize that he could understand people.
Ken Kasey showcases the value in a life filled with self-expression and shines a light on the techniques used throughout society to compel conformity. By showing a direct correlation to people’s ability to express themselves and their quality of life he makes a compelling case for individuality.
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