Monday, December 18, 2006

Glass ceilings, walls and floors

I'm currently reading a very silly, if readable, book "The Illuminatus trilogy" in which one of the characters says;

Be afraid, be very afraid..."The land belongs to the landlords, right now, because of magic. People worship the deeds in the government offices, and they won't dare move onto a square of ground if one of the deeds says somebody owns it. It's a head trip, a kind of magic, and you need the opposite magic to lift the curse. You need shock elements to break up and disorganise the chains of command in the brain..."

Whilst magic is probably putting it a bit strong (although I like the image) what certainly is true is that social conventions are not objective rules, but products of social conditioning.

There's an interesting post on "normalcy" giving a good perspective on the subjective qualities of social conventions. It also contains the idea, which is very common I think, that social niceties "aren't even real". Now that's a big jump and an idea I'd like to take up.

Whilst it's true there's no objective reason for someone to be offended at passing the port the wrong way or not standing when the national anthem is played, once established as social norms they become objective facts, and their transgression is real, no matter how arbitrary you may feel the convention itself to be.

Mummy will teach you all you need to knowSome of these social conventions, in fact, are clearly worth observing. I'd like to advise my readers to drive on the correct side of the road (which is on the left round here) because whilst breaking this rule may make you a rebel and rule breaker, it will probably also make you a corpse. And it would be a shame to die young and beautiful, as you are.

Ideas have a very real material substance no matter how transitory they can feel. They are both the product of and producer of social action. An argument that is closely related to my previous post on free will.

Jacob posted a while ago on the sting on embarrassment when we transgress these norms stating that "Embarrassment should be something to be embarrassed about. We should defend our actions that we believe are right and criticise in hindsight those we feel are wrong, but I simply can see no value in attempting to distance oneself from one’s own interactions with the world" which is admirable on one level, but futile on another.

Whilst we can resist particular ideas embedded in our culture (like racism, Catholicism or polyamory) there's absolutely no point in resisting the fact that there are social conventions. As long as there is society these norms will inevitably arise, but the form these norms take is miraculously fluid and can change extremely rapidly.

People will feel shame when they transgress conventions, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I want hum-vee drivers to feel shame. I want racists to feel embarrassed about their views. What those conventions are will change, and we are part of that tranformation which means we can try to make conscious choices about the direction we want society to go in.

Whilst it's a subjective value judgement to, say, let's make sustaining human life on Earth something we actually aim for, it's one I'm happy to choose and one that has a very concrete, real outcome whether this aim succeeds or fails.


nickleberry said...

Hi JimJay, I liked this post of yours - I thought it was right on... Thought you might be interested in a post of mine on a similar topic: In praise of shoplifting. It's all about morality being a product of social convention...

nice one,
nickleberry :)

Jim Jay said...

Hello, thanks and welcome NB: It's an interesting piece - I read it already, directed there via Cambridge Indymedia