How did we get here?

The last three years have been incredibly eye-opening for me. I’ll use a single statement to set the foundations for why:

“This is the way things are supposed to be.”

I believe there are two kinds of structure: formal and informal. Different schools of thought have different terms for it, but ultimately it boils down to “what is a written rule” versus “what actually happens.” A simple example: the speed limit might be 55, but a lot of people are going to go 60. There are certain bounds of acceptability we’re able to live with: if most people go 60 or 65, nobody bats an eye. The moment someone goes 100, there becomes a problem.

With the speed limit, we can then ask a new question: why is the speed limit 55? And, more clearly: what authority set the speed limit at 55, and why should I respect it? With this, we have begotten the concepts of authority and trust. I believe our notions of those concepts, and our ability to determine when to question them and when to adhere to them, develops as we grow up. How many toddlers annoy us by constantly asking “why is the sky blue?” followed by an endless string of more “why?” questions? And yet, at some point, those questions go away, and we make assumptions and set with them.

One example of where these assumptions join us: in school, a child is asked a question. Maybe something simple, like arithmetic. The child responds with the right answer, and the teacher says “very good, Jimmy.” The teacher turns to another student and asks another question, which the student gets wrong. Rather than saying “try again”, the teacher asks “why?”. While it seems very logical– letting the child know they have a wrong answer, and asking them to think about it for a second to come to another conclusion– it also seeds the notion that the word “why” belongs in negative territory.

Think about all the times children are asked why: when they misbehave and are asked to explain what they did; when something unexpected happens, or something is missing, etc. Fundamentally, many people are taught that the word “why” should have a negative connotation, and only be invoked when something is out of order. Incidentally, this does two things: teaches the notion of good and bad, and in reinforcing the idea that “why?” questions are bad, casts the impression that the structure is good.

This isn’t inherently a good or bad thing. Structure has many uses: we use structures (words) to communicate, we use them to denote hierarchies, to designate roles in societies (someone call the police!) and so on.

And yet, it does have one very interesting side effect. To momentarily substitute the words “good” and “bad” with “survival” and “death”, we should recognize that in general, people (and animals) want to survive. Our bodies even have barriers set up to keep us surviving: when we need to eat, we get hungry. If we’re near something that can hurt us, like a fire, we feel pain. And we also need other people to help us survive. If we’re children, we’re dependent on our parents. If we’re elderly, we’re likely dependent on our children. Someone has to buy the baker’s bread, etc. Like organs in a body, working together to make a living being functional, the roles different people play in a society work together to help the community survive. Incidentally, I suspect this is why we crave fora or hangout spaces, and why Occupy happened. We yearn, crave, the ability to simply hang out.

All this said, I’ll introduce yet another dualistic term: outlaw. Take a medieval city, or a primitive “tribe.” There is usually a social boundary of some sort… maybe all the huts are in a clearing, and nobody wants to venture alone into the forest savage. Maybe you’re afraid of the barbarians attacking, so you’ve constructed a physical wall around your community. At this point, “law” becomes the structure itself, that physical element keeping the peace. You and your family/community don’t need to fear outside attacks because you have defenses. So what happens when someone goes against the social will of the people? Maybe they’ve practiced witchcraft, committed adultery, stole a loaf of bread, etc? Simple: exile them outside the walls, or literally make them an “out-law.”

Now, let’s re-envelope this concept into survival, and we can see that “survival” and “law” link fairly well together. Take it a step further, and we’ve joined this notion of life itself to the structures we’re taught growing up. Among other things, this is what many eastern religions refer to as the “right hand path.” It is safe, it is known, it is defined, it is, for all intents and purposes, good. And suddenly, all those “why?” questions look a lot scarier. Do you dare question the king? Do you dare wander into the forest savage, which has no set path? And then we have where we are today.

Like any other platonic ideal, these concepts of good/evil don’t actually exist. They fall into a yin/yang style pattern which we bounce between. But there is one illusion that traps many people: the illusion that there’s only one structure, only one way of doing things. One plus one is two, a concept that most people accept, excludes the option to ask “but what does that mean?” Or that there’s only one God, only one true Faith. Or, less abstractly, how often do you go to a restaurant and order the same thing, over and over again, less you venture out into the unknown sandwiches?

The truth is, IMHO, there is no absolute structure. Even the notion of a word itself is not absolute. If I say I’m “happy”, what do I really mean? Do I feel the same as the last time I said I was “happy”? Do I feel exactly the same as someone else who says they are “happy”? Obviously not, and yet there is a common understanding of the general idea we’re able to relate. And when we expand on these notions, we’re simply adding more symbols, which helps to clarify, but it’s not complete.

So how do we know the structures other people have are in the same “law” as ours? That’s the age-old question. Do those people look the same as me? Do they dress the same as me, speak the same language, shake hands, play the same sports, etc? Perhaps this is what becomes that notion of community. And in turn, this creates that sense of trust.

This turned out to be a bit more meta than I’d intended. Perhaps I’ll revisit it and wrap it more into current events in a bit.

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