Social Norms

The distinction between violating the rights of others and violating social norms is often blurred, to the detriment of vitality. It is desirable to make it a behavioral goal never to violate the rights of others, but it is impossible and foolish to make it a goal never to violate a social norm, yet many make exactly that a goal, as if goodness depended on it.

The rights of others are violated when their emotional integrity or physical safety in violated, or when their options for self-determination are durably altered. The question of what are the rights of a person, when really examined, have been very consistently described throughout history and throughout place. The variance in the justice of a culture has been in who is considered a person. That is groups (ie women, children, minorities, etc) are de-humanized, then violated.

Social norms are generally agreed upon practices that make life nicer (at least for somebody). Social norms vary from time to time, and place to place, and quite widely. In fact, social norms can quite easily violate the rights of others, think of slavery, segregation, etc.. Still, most social norms have a positive use. Social norms are mostly about public behavior--the idea that one might violate a norm in private generally makes no sense. (For certain high interest behaviors like sex, even scant indirect evidence that becomes public may violate a social norm.)

Not following a social norm calls attention to itself, and violating social norms for this purpose alone is called rebellion. Rebellion is not freedom of behavior but rather manipulating others through social norms. Rebellion is the traditional province of adolescents. Usually the issue is with the relationship with parents or authority, and the norms are innocent bystanders.

As an example, being inconvenienced or delayed by someone acting reasonably in their own self-interest is not a violation of the rights of others. Being exposed to the sights and sounds of others in distress is not a violation. Having to hear the protests of others is not a violation.

There are, however, social norms about being quiet, nice, polite, undistracting, unintrusive. Many people, seeking to be lovable, develop self-images around these norms. The norms become not just general guidelines but 'must-dos.' But norms will never address conflict--they have a largely opposite purpose. Healthy functioning requires the healthy embracing of conflict. It is the nature of social norms to be incorrect from a human point of view from time to time

A healthy double-standard is a modest bias towards considering one's own ideas slightly better, one's own desires slightly more urgent, and one's contributions slightly more valuable then others. This leads to relatively sane interactions in which participants must stand up for themselves but can reasonably work things out. An unhealthy double standard is of course what everyone is afraid of encountering, where the bias becomes large and rigid, and there is a constant danger of someone's rights being violated. A double standard about one's image of course is part of narcissism, and that is not what is being encouraged here.

But more common and more insidious is a reverse double-standard. This a sincere bias against one's own interests, but with the hidden expectation that one will be rewarded for the self-repression. A reverse double standard doesn't give a firm basis for others to push against, and is frustrating and crazy-making at the least, and often draws others into an unhealthy double-standard. A reverse double-standard has its origin in childhood experience, but it looks to social norms rather than feeling to guide action.