Monday, March 3, 2014

The Arbitrariness of Social Conventions

Social customs are strange things. Some rules are totally arbitrary (fork on the left, knife on the right), but usually these end up being conventions where the choice of alternatives didn't really matter much anyway. Mostly social conventions exist to solve some or other common problem in society.

Some rules tend to take odd views of human nature. In Chicago, for instance, if you try to swim out past chest height at most of the beaches, 15 year old pin-head lifeguards sitting in row boats will blow whistles and yell at you to go back on pain of being fined. This, bear in mind, is in a lake that has no waves, no submerged obstacles, and a gently sloping shoreline. I spent frustrated hours trying to work out whether this was a liability issue (if so, hand me the damn waiver, I'll sign it), or a paranoia about the inability of literally anybody to swim. Although frankly, short of a heart attack, I don't know how you'd drown if you tried.

Other rules make sense on their own, but are hard to reconcile with a consistent view of the world. For instance, if you think people are too stupid to figure out where they can walk out to in a lake, how on earth do you justify letting such people vote to decide US foreign policy? If you think that people need to be protected from the prospect of inadvertent mistakes (as one rationale for the insane swimming restrictions), why doesn't this apply consistently? In Chicago, for instance, you're able to ride your motorcycle to the beach without a helmet, but not allowed to swim freely once you arrive. I challenge anyone to explain these two facts as being the result of a consistent approach to anything.

This can get particularly striking when dealing with rules designed to guide conventions of behavior when people are forced to interact in environments when their immediate interests are at odds. An increasingly common indignant complaint in modern life is when one is forced to endure the merest whiff of unwanted cigarette smoke. The tradeoff here is fundamental - one person gains enjoyment by emitting smoke, the other by not having to smell it. If we can't simply separate, as in smoking versus non-smoking sections, who gets their way and who has to lump it? One rule says that smoke is a minor imposition, and the rest of the world has to deal with it. The other says that it's rude to pollute other peoples air, whether by farting, smoking, or not showering after exercise or wearing deodorant before. You should only do any of them where others aren't impacted. Both are individually defensible. Society used to favor view #1, but the evangelists for #2 seem to have won the day, imposing their will on everyone else. They don't tell you it's just their preference, of course - it's all about the cost to society of second hand smoke. Yeah right.

Some of these indignant smoke-botherers would do well to reflect on the fragility of their own intellectual consistency. My favorite in this regard are the people who ask other people to not smoke nearby, because their children will breath it in. I find this such a tone deaf complaint. Personally, I don't get annoyed by smoke very much. But I do get significantly annoyed by loud noises in environments not conducive to them - loud and boisterous tables at restaurants, young children yelling and carrying on, that kind of thing. If you bring your very young child to a restaurant, there is a chance they may start crying and you won't be able to comfort them. If this happens, it's not going to be pleasant for the people around you. Triply so if you're on a plane. This is totally predictable in advance, of course - when you bring the kid along, it's just the risk that goes with the territory.

There's a very reasonable argument that say, tough luck, it's not a large imposition, and we can't expect young parents to just be pariahs for years. Which is fine. But would you be happy if the same argument were applied to smoking? This goes even more so when the child is above the age where they might be taught better manners. If your 6 month old won't stop crying, people understand that sometimes there's not much you can do. But when your 4 year old is talking at full volume in the art museum, and you just carry on thinking it's adorable (as happened to me today)? That, my friend, is the equivalent of lighting up your cigarette at the table just before the dessert course.

The first order response to all this is that most people turn out to be quite flexible in matters of abstract principle once a sufficient quantity of their oxen are about to be gored. As Ace of Spades once memorably put it, everyone is a property rights absolutist right up until the point that their neighbour, also a property rights absolutist, wants to open a fat-rendering plant.

The second is that there is a certain type of utopian that wants to set down consistent principles in all social behaviour, and if certain practices need to be upended to make it happen, so be it. The small-c conservative takes a Camus-like view of the absurdity of much convention - sure it's arbitrary, but that's okay. Ripping up long-standing practices tends to not have a great track record, so maybe you're better off just accepting that it doesn't make any sense.

Part of me is sympathetic to the Utopian view that we need to hammer out consistent principles once and for all. But I don't think it's every going to happen. You're probably better off just embracing the absurdity and contradiction.

I try to remind myself of this when it's my meal being disturbed. As Mr Dylan put it - be easy baby, there ain't nothing worth stealing here.


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