The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business
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The Golden Rule

The GOLDEN RULE

By Adam De Gree

As institutions have come to dominate our society, modern discourse centers not on the art of association, but on the power and profits that shape everything from our bedrooms to our boardrooms. There’s no doubt that government, churches, and corporations play a powerful role, for better or worse, in the shaping of culture. However, these built institutions, the ones we have purposely constructed precisely to wield such power, could never exist in the first place without the purely organic process of agreed upon social norms. In fact, these manufactured legal structures, these all powerful institutions, only survive with the support of organic institutions; those that do not require anyone’s permission to take shape. And like all things organic, our human institutions not only grow and develop, they actually evolve.

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When most people think about human evolution and its many adaptations, they think of physical features like eyes and thumbs, which are no doubt useful. What gets left out is the fact that we humans also develop these inherent institutional adaptations. Though we tend not to think of language as physical, society would be impossibly unlivable without our ability to somehow uncover the knowledge of strangers. In fact, without these softer naturally occurring institutions, there may not even be a society in the first place.

But on top of spoken language, we invent cultural codes that signal intended good faith cooperation. Money itself has no chemical characteristics, but the information and incentives it encodes allow people to pay for food without ever speaking to a farmer. When the light turns red we know what to do. And when someone sneezes, we know what to say, and when we see a line of people outside of the theater, we try not to cut. Morality is not biological, but no community can survive without rules governing the conduct of its members, as Americans are brutally discovering over and over again today. We have only just begun to contemplate what happens to society once we break the golden rule.

For all the achievements of today’s technologies, there is still no way to see into the future. Prehistoric languages do a better job of expressing thought than CAT Scans. Artificial Intelligence might excel in chess or applied mathematics, but no computer could attain a peasant’s knowledge of the relationships between seasons, sheep, and the soil. There is some part of human nature that itself is mysteriously institutional. As for the art of harmonious living, digital media, to say nothing of modern weaponry, has actually found a way to make life more difficult with each passing day. Technology simply has no answer for the dark forces of time and ignorance, or the problem of peaceful coexistence. Institutions are the best tool humanity has against these ever-present challenges.

Thomas Edison courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior

Institutions are the adaptation that enable humans to collaborate flexibly with strangers and friends alike. If all this seems magical, it is, in a very concrete sense: no single person created any of them. So while Thomas Edison may have given us the incandescent lightbulb, only culture itself can shape language or morality. In the words of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.” No one sat down and designed the English language, and the Golden Rule isn't the result of abstract theorizing.

These are emergent orders, existing by the grace of human interaction. No one is in control —and that's the point. It is precisely on these spontaneous traditions that the culture of your quirky little hometown or the fantastic absurdity of a city like Los Angeles rests. Yet their very spontaneity makes it difficult for people to understand and appreciate them. In an age of reason, we're all control freaks with a false sense of ourselves, and extreme prejudice towards everyone else.

Once you pull back on the lens of society, the old parable of the city mouse and the country mouse seems especially relevant in this moment of global transition. Though we always believed in the myth of the simple life, the urban/rural divide really describes the difference in structural institutions we surround ourselves with, while our organic institutions, the concepts of kindness, respect, our sense of right and wrong and a shared common cause come into play regardless of the population numbers. But the narratives we are fed around this depend solely on the ideas around man made institutions, which are always on hand to take the blame for society’s ills, letting we the people off the hook.

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For instance, passing by behind the headlines is the fact that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, and that number is growing. This shift is responsible for more political upheaval than any Twitter rant – the growing productivity of urban centers across China, India, and Africa displaces Western competitors almost as fast as it eradicates domestic poverty.

Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that as supply chains crisscross the globe and bring millions out of extreme deprivation, they also act as tripwires triggering fear of change. Precisely now that a decent life is finally within reach for billions, young people in rich countries are more pessimistic than ever. As bouts of anti-establishment politics spread like a virus across Europe and the United States, depression, anxiety, and suicide hit record highs. Time-honored traditions of faith in both church and state fall by the wayside as a new sense of nihilism takes hold, one fueled by the morphine drip of consumerism. One opiate for the next.

No matter how you look at it, it’s undeniable that modern life holds as many problems as it does promises. For most of humanity’s existence, the webs of trust that make cooperation possible had a human face – that of friends and family in the tight-knit groups that lived and died together before the Agricultural Revolution. It’s simply easier to trust someone you grew up with than someone you just met. But tight knit groups form quickly even in densely populated cities, despite what we are told about the anonymity, fast pace, and hard knocks of urban life.

©The Estate of Garry Winogrand

Cities have the same need for trust that a nomadic tribal encampment does – in fact, they need more, simply because more lives are at stake. Yet as Adam Smith put it, people are “at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while [their] whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.” One of the greatest problems of modern times is then to extend the trust of a tribal setting to the scale of a metropolis, and beyond. The rapid changes of the 21st century are likely to make that project exceptionally difficult, even as humanity’s hubris in the face of nature grows to epic proportions.

Though bright lights make it easy to forget the fear that once accompanied night, strip away the city and people are still helpless – no fangs, no claws, no map that leads to tomorrow. In the words of the economist John Maynard Keynes, the “dark forces of time and ignorance” shape all human action. No amount of individual intelligence or strength is enough to overcome them. To prevail, people have to do more than run, jump, and hide: they have to collaborate.

Yet here is the heart of the problem. In a small-group setting, pro-social behaviors are reinforced by people who grew up together. In an anonymous world, many people choose to outsource even intimate conversations to the market and children who once learned from their elders are welcomed into adulthood en masse watching shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen – hardly a replacement for an initiation rite. Yet it’s the best the modern world has given us.

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Young people raised in such environments increasingly accept the notion that fulfillment is to be found not in personal relationships but in the impersonal world of newsfeeds– that #voting is a more effective way of helping the poor than spending some time at the local soup kitchen. When political institutions promise to play the role of society, society itself withers like an untended garden. Simply pull the lever and the institution will fix your problems for you.

Yet as the blind follow the blind, some notice that the world they’ve been sold doesn’t match the real one. News stations cover an economic recovery while wages stagnate. Politicians praise capitalism and bail out banks, others preach peace and practice war. Social media breeds an anti-social generation afraid of uncomfortable conversations. There is no soil more fertile for demagogues than a society afraid of honest discussion.

These pressing institutional problems require institutional solutions, but where will they come from? The closest thing younger generations have to a community – Facebook & Instagram – seems like an unlikely source for the re-establishment of social harmony. These experiences can be wonderful and meaningful, but real world relationships rest on a network of informal and less understandable social connections that make it possible to trust strangers in the first place.

Policing behavior is of no help in a world that has forgotten the Golden Rule. That better world won’t be attained through endless digital identity mob rule. It requires a wholehearted embrace, in borough and village, of the ongoing development of our organic social heritage. Without these ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ to speak truly, listen respectfully, and cooperate peacefully, our homes will be as messy as our politics, even if all the “right” laws are on the books.