Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Best Behavior

Language and morality are inseparable, they flow from the same well. As Noam Chomsky noted, the rules of language are buried deep within the cerebral cortex. We can’t really observe them, we don’t know how they’re hidden, but we can observe their effects. We do know that everyone has a language and everyone has a morality. You may not like their morality as you may not like or understand their language, but they’ve got one, sure as shootin’. We all do, and they’re intimately tied together.

They stem from the inherited internal rules of behavior and communication which all species necessarily have; can’t reproduce without them. The rules of behavior are what we call morality; while their underlying motives may be the same, their manners of expression can wildly differ. However they’re formed, their understanding is visceral, not intellectual. They are shaped by their surrounding culture, just as language is determined by who’s speaking. Likewise, learning another morality can be difficult after the age of, say, thirteen.

We tend to think of morality as covering meta-rules, such as whom you can marry and whom you can kill; but those are only part of the complex of social rules which govern everyone’s behavior, the rebels as well as the priests. Who you can or can’t kill is as basic as how you greet each other or where you wear your shoes or where you go to the bathroom. Even Al Capone was nervous about picking his nose in public. The bottom line is that, when dealing with people, you can no more avoid their social conventions than you can avoid their language. Even a psychopath has to scream at his victim. Violating the rules is as complexly patterned, as various, and as pre-determined as following them.

Which means that babies are born, not only with the capacity to communicate—which they express from day one—but with an inherited understanding of what’s right and wrong, of what are the social rules. You may not think your pre-teen has any idea of the rules of social behavior, but, trust me, they all do. That’s how they get at you so easily, they know just what will tweak your tiller. But those babies, they know right away that they should be fed and they have a right to their mother whenever they want her. And God forbid you should take away anything they think is theirs. They know their rights and what belongs to them. The Golden Rule was made up by a fourth-grader. The Lord of the Flies had it all wrong. I hope.

So, is correcting “bad” behavior as simple as teaching the rules of punctuation? Well, yeah, but… It may be more difficult and the consequences may be more severe, but the principle is the same. The Chinese got out of control, but the Maoist principle of reeducating someone rather than punishing them is the only path to harmony. Punishment is only effective by instilling fear, and social order maintained by fear is in danger of breakdown at any moment; which is one reason why societies forever eventually breakdown: they rely on punishment. That, too, is almost universal, and that, too, never works. Punishment, unfortunately, is a visceral reaction to having been wronged; it’s not a thought-out, well reasoned reaction, it’s from the gut. The trick is, not in teaching criminals that their behavior is bad, but in teaching society that criminal behavior is a societal problem, not an individual one, that crime is a matter of societal structure and education as much as anything (compounded by faulty chemistry or wiring). We can’t hope to have miscreants wise up until we wise up. Once we see scofflaws as sick people, crime will disappear. But it’s damned hard to stifle that visceral reaction of, “I want to kill the son-of-a-bitch.”
My advice? None. It’s like the light bulb, it’s gotta want to change. Very rarely does the light bulb admit that it’s burned out. By that point it’s usually saying, “But I like the dark. And I’d like you all to be here with me. In the dark.”

Thanks, but I’ve got a door to open.

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