I’m not a sociologist. Neither am I a lawyer, a psychologist, nor even a college graduate. But I am observant, which is part of a fairly uncommon condition that causes me to notice a number of things consciously that many people pass off as either unimportant, or because of other concerns simply do not absorb. After doing this for a number of years – as people I speak to in everyday live will perhaps recall – I’ve come to begin referring to something called the Social Contract.
There is an unspoken set of rules that quite any given culture that sits deeper than their laws and even less controllable than the weather or pure chance. These rules evolve sometimes over time, and sometimes change overnight because of powerful revelations, but inevitably become concepts almost impossible to discuss while you’re part of that culture – you’re too close, usually, to see the links and the things that fit with the Social Contract, apart from simple things like law and propriety. A lot of these things do coincide, which makes it very difficult to tell law and courtesy from the Contract itself.
Theft is an easy one to use as example. Sure, it’s illegal, but why is it illegal in the first place? It reduces the ability of any two parties to interact. The thief and the victim, for one, are no longer on even social footing. Those around them either benefit or are damaged by the theft itself, which means they are reduced as well. Even those who benefit immediately from theft are lessened in the long run – a smaller will to work, rationalisation or even a lack of care for fellow people, the list is rather long. The same extends, naturally to harsher crimes such as larceny, organized crime, murder and so on. But what about the harder to pick out breaches of Social Contract?
This is where it gets really insidious. In Canada, as in other places, we have this idea of privacy. It’s very hard to define because we are so immersed in it, but it boils down to the point of huge generalization by saying if I don’t want you seeing/knowing/learning something about me, I feel I’ve got the right to restrict your knowledge/sight/discovery because, well, it’s about me and I say so. How far does this apply? If someone asks me a question, I can choose not to answer. But if someone sits n a roof and uses a telephoto lens to capture an image of me walking about in my home, I have no recourse. Have they done something illegal? I don’t know enough about the stricture of law to say (I figure, not likely), but this person has indeed as most Canadians and North Americans would agree, invaded my privacy. Broken a law? Not quite. But broken the Social Contract and lessened themselves and myself because of their actions, yes.
The same applies at a greater volume to social interaction, which is where the Social Contract becomes most important. When was the last time someone told you you were wearing a goofy outfit? Was it someone you know, perhaps close friends or family? Annoying, but we write it off to them deep down wanting the best for us. A friend will ask if you’re alright when you fall down; a close friend will ask if you’r ok, then never let you live it down. What if it was a stranger? Can you imagine the outrage, someone you’ve never seen before walking past you and – not waiting to laugh with their friends about your outfit, actually pointed and said flat out you look like a fool. Wow, what nerve, what awful manners, right? This is a perfect example of awful Social Contract breakage, because it immediately colours any interactions the afflicted person has for a period determined solely by their own temperament – a part of which comes into play in their internal version of the Contract itself.
You see, this is where the really slick piece is. Everyone’s Social Contract is different because every person is unique. The version of the Contract each person internalizes comes from their values, their knowledge and their persona – it’s a fairly complex thing, and because we formulate it internally without consciousness, finding the details and boundaries of our own Social Contracts is nearly impossible without huge amounts of meditation and thought. And yet, startlingly, large groups of people in a given culture find the same things offensive, not just to Law or value or virtue, but to the very core of our ability and preference when we’re interacting with others. Lewdness, rudeness, awkward behaviour, actions that seem perfectly logical at the same time as they seem so far outside what should be that in some cases we we have trouble even defining what we find so wrong about these events. We just know that, like a crime against our ego, they do something we don’t like.
Having built-in rules like this is a function of being tribe-based animals. Social interactions define us, and our ability to speak in common language not just by words and their definitions, but by the connotative and subjective meanings behind them. Many people who learn a new language struggle at it because they lack the social experience that goes along with why words and phrases sound like they do, the slang that goes with them – linguistics is a complex science for a reason. The Social Contract is perhaps more complex because it encompasses not only language and culture but experience, personality and society and any other number of factors definable and indefinite.
It’s a complex thing, and being aware of it can be very fascinating. But when you’re confronted by incredibly awkward and astounding events that force you to adjust your own candour against your own will, it can be horrible knowing where the trouble comes from. Sometimes ignorance can be bliss.