Custom and convention
    Too many times we forget how custom and convention varies from time to time, let alone from society to society. This means a great deal in how we think and act. An easy way to visualize how quickly our lives can change is to recall the history of personal computers. Although personal computers are an example of technology and of mass marketing -- their use, directly and indirectly, has altered our habits, expectations, and our abilities. It may be fair to say they are revolutionary.
    Tracing our technological progress back, we find other milestones to mark important new creations, for example television, radio, horseless carriages, electricity, gunpowder. But whereas few of us question the common knowledge of the continuing evolution of technology, for many of us the evolution of customs, of mental attitudes, of our worldviews as a society -- is unappreciated.
    Yet even limiting our survey to the United States of America, there are obvious significant attitude shifts, and a few highlights should instantly prove my point: abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, prohibition, the civil rights movement and emergence of women into half of the workforce.
    What we presently consider normal behavior, might well have been immoral, criminal or otherwise wrong in earlier times. Once, many of us were content with the society of classes. People were accustomed to being of the leisure class or of the working class. Servants were as common as they are scarce now. Men and women had definitely different roles.
    There was a well-defined sense of order in this system, which made it, presumably, more bearable and less irksome than we now imagine it. I think future generations will look back at some of our habits and furrow their brows in amazement. Even as we watch, smoking is becoming less and less socially acceptable. Remember, just 50 years ago, a man could get a job easily, buy a house, support a wife and children. Now, painful to say, the cost of most housing is so high, and wages so relatively low, that most couples working can barely get by.
    So economic life, as well as technology, and social attitudes, all evolve. Pressed (as we always are) to make ends meet and get our current jobs done, we are apt to lose sight of this larger abstraction. If we can easily forget our own society's inconstancy, far more do we fail to acknowledge that other societies may hold dramatically different values than ours.
    Western values and those of much of Asia have long been contrasting in several important ways. A few well known examples include the role of women, medicinal or healing techniques and beliefs, religious customs, and (of recent note) environmental ethics. Contrast our usual North American diet with, say, that of the aborigines of the South Pacific, or of Brazil. We squeal in revulsion at eating insects; other cultures may routinely consume many nutritious edibles which we, as a society, find unappetizing.
    In college I studied anthropology at more length than usual, and considered majoring in it. Finally I decided that history, broadly conceived, included anthropology, as well as sociology, political science, psychology, etc, and in brief was how all people live or lived in all places and times. Therefore, if someone says something about a "universal habit" or implies that our present mainstream Western-world customs are more than merely current habits, I perk-up my ears and watch for an opportunity to pop the balloon of ignorance.
    Of course, it is normal to make some assumptions. We would go nuts otherwise. We take for granted in our everyday business with one another that we are dealing with the same language, laws, currency, technology, and cultural habits. I'm not going to challenge someone for wearing a swim suit to the beach just because I know that most people swimming in most places and time have done so naked.
    Where it seems there is too little imagination or free thinking, and too heavy reliance on dogma or convention -- then I jump in with an observation, an allegory or somehow make a point about relativity. For example, when folks tend to assume that the normal or ideal role for people is to pair-up in marriage, buy a house, and raise children, then I want to jump in "wait a minute, please."
    What with explosive population, depleted natural resources, congested traffic, and the ascension of women's rights in the job market -- we should at least accept, if not actually encourage, such alternatives as group living (besides nuclear families), "childless by choice" couples (married or not), homosexual households, extended family units, and other legal, moral, victimless strategies.
    Rather than espouse a certain way of life as best for all, I advocate that everyone cultivate a healthy skepticism and, after due consideration, make up his or her mind about how to live. Living in a democracy allows us to voice our opinions at least, although some of us minority voters are left out in certain ways. Racial minorities, unfortunately, cannot blend-in with whites well. My automobile-less existence (depending upon bicycling) puts me well into a minority role. It would be much easier for me to join the ranks of drivers, than it would be for a black person to become white (as Michael Jackson succeeded in doing). In fact, being as I am, a well-connected, well-educated, healthy white male, if I want to I can do practically anything, because our society makes it so easy. Yet because I am a freethinking skeptic, and am willing to sacrifice personal comfort to the alter of my perceived values, I remain economically insignificant compared to my peer group. I'm thrilled to know I live in an age that truly is, for most of us, a land of opportunities, so if we dream, work hard, and have enough time, we can succeed in our plans.
    Since the pace of technology, especially of transportation and communications, is now so rapid, we are often going too fast for comfort. We lose some good and even necessary customs as we gain new science fiction technology. For example, the personal, hand-written, stamped letter, a romantic and long-used communique, is being mostly replaced by the repulsively named e-mail and faxes. The proliferation of abbreviations and deterioration of grammar, as well as a lack of civil manners, is a heavy price to pay for this hyper speed of communication.
    Far worse, I imagine, is the slow decrease in respect for morals, the practice of talking over and working out problems peacefully, of being involved in selfless ways to help each other. I touch more upon this theme in my essays CITIZENSHIP, EDUCATION, and FAMILY. Here the point is not so much detailing such transformations, as underscoring how such values and behaviors do change. Such change is "glacial" in its movement, but similarly, even a small pebble tossed on a pond creates ripples -- so you or I can, by our actions, cause the changes of customs to either be that much to the better of society, or to the detriment.
    What better example than the recent much-publicized wave of violence in America? If everyone who was fed up with excess TV violence was to insist on reformation, wouldn't that be enough to make a giant difference? What if people insisted than TV be recognized as a powerful influence on youth, and that accordingly we demand it educate, inspire, and promote well-balanced, thoughtful, generous behavior?
    Of course, a multitude of other influences, movies and real-life situations included, would also need to be improved for our ideal benefit. But it could happen. History informs us, and a peek into conditions around the world today confirms it, that in some times and places people have been worse off.
    Curiously enough, even a typical suburban-raised, college graduate these days, has more options and is better off than most kings in history. Let our suburbanite get motivated, and he or she could engage in practically any business, live practically anywhere, and make enough money to do a lot of good or bad. Someone said the wealthiest man in Japan was old and unhealthy, and would gladly give up all his money to be young and healthy.
    Despite our present problems, which we often harp upon, our society is powerful, is wealthy, and has the brains to do whatever we choose to. It is a shared responsibility. Most people in earlier ages didn't to a similar degree, control their destiny. They lived in comparatively monotonous, limited, short spans. We can survey our shortcomings, and fix them. We can expand our range of awareness and help each other. Life before has been just as exciting and dangerous, but without so many options.