Dear 18-year-old self:
In this letter, I want to talk to you a bit about something that’ll increasingly weigh on your mind as you grow older: the notion of society. Society is something we are born into. We don’t choose it. We can’t escape it. But, we can certainly try to influence it; the trick is doing so without being shunned by it or, worse yet, having it punish you for trying to incite change. Society, after all, does all it can to protect itself, to protect the status quo.
Examining society from a very personal perspective, you’ll see three forces at play; it’s these three forces that’ll frame my letter: conformance, compliance, and contribution.
Society prefers “average”; no matter what you hear, society is most comfortable when social norms are tight and when people conform to them. Its tool for making this possible? The media. The media encourages what we wear, what we talk about, and, sadly, in most cases, what we think: who our “enemies” are (real or otherwise), what to be afraid of, and how our society is protecting us from it. Society tolerates progressive ideas…as long as they don’t appear to threaten its stability. It is, after all, society that tortured people to their death for arguing something as then-crazy as the Earth not being the center of the universe. That was only 400 years ago. I could reference much more contemporary examples but, alas, emotions run too high with them. Society punishes those who stand out too far.
So, what should you do in such a world? Study. Contemplate. Conclude. And share. But be cautious with whom you share your conclusions because, after all, if the world isn’t ready for them, you, too, could become a victim. It’s difficult to change society from outside of it; your challenge will be to help society progress while remaining within it: dress differently, but not too differently; speak differently, but not too differently; behave differently, but not too differently.
Society creates and enforces laws; it’s very good at that. You’ll never run into a shortage of laws or of ways to break them. Some laws will be natural and in alignment with your perception of the natural human order; others will seem rather irrelevant; others still will be so counter-natural that you know it’s a matter of time before they’re changed (e.g., anything that distinguishes human rights based on artificially-defined distinctions such as sex, race, or belief system). Laws are inherently temporal: they’re enacted, they’re enforced, and they’re eventually repealed. You’ll always struggle with this lifecycle; after all, if a law may eventually be repealed in the future, can’t we just “fast forward” to that time and act is if it isn’t there?
So, what should you do in such a world? Comply to the extent your moral compass will allow you. Comply to the extent yours and your family’s personal safety and well-being depend on it. Do so while recognizing that you must help those who are unable to help themselves navigate the increasingly-complex ecosystem of laws, many of which are far from timeless.
Society is well-known for something as certain as death: taxes. Taxes are society’s way of ensuring everyone contributes. The problem, of course, is that contribution is far from fairly-distributed. Everyone always thinks about who pays for society’s taxes; but there’s an equally-important question: who benefits from society’s taxes? Who benefits from society’s ability to protect itself and its status quo. Who is the true benefactor of society maintaining that status quo?
So, what should you do in such a world? Once again, you won’t have much of a choice other than to participate and contribute. You’ll struggle to win the fight on the “who pays what” side; so, instead, focus on helping maximize the benefit from those contributions: engage and participate in local and regional government. Help make sure contributions are spent effectively. Help those who aren’t aware of programs find and take advantage of those programs. Once again, help the system improve from within because you’ll struggle to do so from outside.
Society isn’t all bad. Yes, it forces you to conform, to comply, and to contribute. But, it also provides a great deal of predictability to what would otherwise be a rather turbulent world. It provides an environment within which you can, albeit slowly, impact an entire population.
Your 42-year-old self.