What Do I Owe You?


I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about society, specifically an individual’s place in it and what we owe to society as a whole. I’m not speaking about taxes and such per se, but rather the social conventions that make up the social mores of society, and the point at which those social mores conflict with our belief in the spirit of the individual and individual expression. With Miley Cirus quickly tanking her musical career with twerking, Anthony Weiner destroying his political career with his… Twitter account, and President Obama rapidly, well, for the sake of civil discussion let’s say “adjusting” America’s reputation in the world on a daily if not hourly basis with the Syrian situation, clearly we hold public individuals accountable. But at what level do we hold private individuals accountable? And should we?

Obviously there are some actions that, while not necessarily physically assaulting others, we believe to be beyond the boundaries of appropriateness. Screaming profanities at a child is not acceptable. Public nudity is (generally) considered outside the lines. Even the unauthorized use of someone else’s property, and no it doesn’t matter if you return it with a full tank of gas, is completely out of the question, whether they were inconvenienced or not. But is that all? Or is there something more?

In our personal relationships we set boundaries, and those boundaries can be somewhat flexible. As we get to know others better we adjust those boundaries, although some things will always be off limits (although what and to whom varies from individual to individual). The difference between standards that we set amongst ourselves and for ourselves can occasionally cause conflict, the most common of which is people judging others or feeling judged. Personally I have no problem with either one; feel free to judge me, because lord knows I’m judging you. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, has a different word for what they are doing, or has no standards for behavior at all.

But that doesn’t mean we have a right to restrict each other’s behavior. Should we call each other out on it? Depends on the relationship. In a work environment, there are (hopefully) guidelines for what is and is not acceptable, and ways to address unacceptable behavior. Outside of those narrowly defined terms, you either need to find a nice way to address it or live with it. For example, maybe the person in the next office talks on their phone really loud. Not so loud that it justifies a complaint to HR, but still. Either you need to find a way to talk to them about it, or get some headphones. And that’s the way life goes.

Personal lives are the same way. If you know someone who engages in what you consider to be obnoxious (but not illegal) behavior, you either need to find a nice way to approach them about it or let it go. Of course they may not listen, or they may be unwilling or unable to change. Then you either have to live with it or stop spending time with them. Life’s full of tough choices like that.

Which kind of brings me back to where I started. There are no guidelines about public behavior, but there is this: if you put it out there for everyone to see, you’re inviting comment from everyone who sees it. Right or wrong, good or bad, fair or not. Public figures accept this as part of the package (or at least they should, because they’re gonna get it anyway), but private individuals need to accept it too, on the small scale. Being a private person doesn’t mean everything you do is private, and we all need to accept that, as well as accepting the consequences of our actions. Even twerking (which I promise to never do).



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