synthetic zero

July 24th, 2010

One of the interesting things about visiting or spending time in the context of other countries and cultures (I am just returning from an intense two week visit to India which I plan to write about at length later) is noticing the unspoken assumptions of your own culture much more forcefully. For example, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how rule-oriented we are in the United States; perhaps driven to some extent by the fact that our social contract is very explicit, it’s written down, we have a tendency to want to be explicit about everything. We write these gigantic contracts hundreds of pages long, and we even have the temerity to ask people to “agree” to laughably enormous contracts as a routine matter when buying or signing up for online goods or services, based on a somehow ludicrous fiction that we are actually reading these things when everyone knows we don’t. Contracts in other countries are often either nonexistent, based purely on handshake agreements, or far more brief than what we use in America. The UK doesn’t have a written constitution, for example; rather it has a scattering of written documents overlaid with precedent and tradition in some cases only instantiated in the minds of living people.

A peculiarly American tendency is to want, therefore, to find some way to clearly define and capture life in terms of some clear rules; it’s actually quite beneficial in many cases, but it can descend into lunacy in others. Mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, and so on, are all examples of this tendency taken to its ridiculous extreme, and there are many cases where taking away intuitive discretion leads to completely absurd results. I think taking this to an extreme shows us as still a somewhat adolescent, somewhat immature culture — for all the ways in which America leads the world, there are many ways in which we betray our relative youth as a civilizational system. In the end, however, for all our tendency towards excessively legalistic processes, we are also pragmatic; we’ve pulled back from our more absurd excesses (Prohibition, mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, etc.) and I think we’ll continue to do so in the future. It’s a deeply embedded habit, however, and will be with us for a very long time.

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