When watching news coverage of natural disasters or one of those zombie apocalypse movies, I occasionally wonder about the thin thread holding society together. When the power goes out and snacks run low, is our natural state to turn on each other, everyone for themselves? Or are the ties that bind us stronger than the entertainment industry leads us to believe?
A fun little social experiment is observing a busy intersection with broken traffic lights. Somewhere along the way civilized society agreed that red means stop and green means go; we’ve yet to agree on the meaning of yellow. Most of the time, when faced with nonworking lights, drivers take turns crossing the intersection. Occasionally order breaks down and anarchy ensues, followed by accidents.
At its heart, society is a pact among citizens to abide by certain standards of efficiency and decency. Money is an agreement that special pieces of green paper with famous faces have value and can be used to acquire things. The criminal justice system—the subject of this month’s cover story package—is an agreement that certain behavior harms our collective standards and must be avoided or punished.
Of course, what constitutes harmful behavior has changed over the years. Interracial marriage was once a crime, but no longer. Same with gay marriage. Buying, selling, and consuming alcohol was perfectly fine for while, then it was a crime, then it wasn’t again. Using marijuana still is a crime in some places, but it’s legal in many states.
In American society, we the people set these collective standards instead of a top-down government approach that was the norm before the U.S. came along. The Declaration of Independence claimed that society exists to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness only with the consent of the governed—and 240 years later we’re still trying to live up to that idea. People get bewildered with shifting social standards, but change is inevitable and generally a good thing. As long as we lead the change and redefine the standards ourselves—and share our snacks when the power goes out—society will be OK.