Tuesdays With Abhorrent Fiends vol 41. (primetime social mores, or, why Kareen yos'Phelium should watch more TV)

An original is a Code unto herself.
~Liaden proverb

As mentioned in earlier posts, I've been reading a lot of Miller & Lee lately. So I've spent a lot of idle brain-time (for example, while standing over a copy machine for hours at a time, getting a crick in my shoulder from repetitive paper-shuffling) pondering the differences between the world I live in and the Liaden universe. What sort of things make it so immersive and attractive, and how similar social necessities are addressed differently here versus there.

There are different measures one must use when considering relationships with others as individuals, versus those same people as members of a group. The proper ways to respond to various circumstances, the duties and privileges attending one's role in a relationship, are slightly distinct for each. Furthermore, virtually none of the parameters of such duties and privileges are things made explicit in our culture. With the arguable exception of the workplace, where relationships-as-members may be defined by an employee manual, company code of conduct, etc. Otherwise, persons learn normal cultural expectations of behavior in a sink-or-swim immersion course. Because the cultural norm is at best loosely defined, the quirks of individuals may be compared and contrasted only against one another on a case-by-case basis.

Now, a Liaden, or many another character in the worlds of fiction, would have little difficulty distinguishing between the many roles of the individuals with whom they relate most closely. they would say, This individual upholds such-and-such melant'i, of which this or that aspect pertains to the current situation. If a Liaden were concerned about how to properly serve the interests of clan, kin, and allies given limited resources, she would need only to study the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct in its many volumes to enlighten her as to the most appropriate path. (And in most extreme uncertainty, an intrepid seeker could dare to elicit the advice of one Kareen yos'Phelium--the editor, reviser and expander of the Code, mother of one, and stickler extraordinaire.) There would thus, in Liaden society, be an explicit standard of behavior, an absolute baseline against which all action might be judged.

That our culture does not have an equivalent of a Code of Proper Conduct is by and large, to my eye, a good thing. A very very good thing. For while it would make people like me a lot more comfortable in knowing where we stand, it would give many jerks needless weaponry against those who are honest yet unsubtle. I would rather life be more difficult and confusing for me than have it be wretched and helplessly miserable for a much larger number of largely blameless persons.

The closest thing we have to a Code, I suppose, is the collective attitudes and mores of the characters on primetime sitcoms. No joke, there. The tenor of the cultural norms provided therein neatly fits the phrase "lowest common denominator". Sitcoms, like any representative art form, may be considered to serve two purposes for the viewer--an exoteric, or revealed function and an esoteric, or hidden function. Let us take as given, as an aspect of its definition directly extrapolated from its name, that a sitcom is a comedic piece in which the driving force of the story is the complexities of a social situation. Hence, situation comedy; sitcom. Inherently an aspect of our cultural understanding of social behavior.

The exoteric function of sitcoms is to entertain, amuse, distract. Following the Greek tradition of the comedy, comic main characters are persons equal or lower in social status than the average viewer. Modern usage has transformed this into moral equality rather than economic. For example, the Bluth family in the series Arrested Development. They possess (at some points) a great deal of money and a certain amount of social power, but are made morally equivalent to viewers through their arrogance, stupidity, and dysfunctional treatment of one another. Watching the exaggerated misfortunes and bunglings of our equals lets us laugh, and provides relief from the strain of facing similar troubles in real life.

The esoteric function of sitcoms is didactic. The way characters behave in primetime is the way that network executives believe the average viewers are least likely to object to seeing characters behave. Primetime is, by definition, the part of the programming schedule with the largest viewership. The rise and fall of programs in and out of that coveted timeslot is determined, in turn, by ratings--a statistic which itself measures viewership. It is rather like a real-time democracy among those who own televisions. A vast majority of persons who are part of this viewing public are aware of this process, even if they could not fully articulate their awareness. Therefore one may take it as a known, a cultural commonplace, that the social norms understood collectively by the characters on primetime sitcoms, are a very good approximation of the social norms prevalent in our society as a whole. I say prevalent, because this situation is also understood to be informal.

Now, in any society, a stigma attaches to a person who deviates overmuch from social norms, whether by falling short or by demonstrating too much zeal.

In Liaden society, a person who was lax or ignorant of Code could take on the shame of being considered barbaric, unreliable, stupid--qualities usually ascribed to foreigners. (As witness the phrase, "rag-mannered as a Terran.") A person who erred in the other direction would take on the stigma of being too stuffy, uninspired, or waspish. In other words, they would suffer the more genteel shame of a person too unimaginative or too cold-hearted to vary outside the accepted structure.

In our society, the stigmas are almost reversed. Television, and with it the "original" versions of the current acceptable social paradigms, is something brought into people's homes. The expectation is that a person will watch television on her own and later discuss it with friends, or watch it along with friends and discuss it as they watch. The group will thereby add nuance and interpretation, confirm some aspects of the "original" norms and reject others. Thus, it logically follows that a person who adheres too exactly or too enthusiastically to social norms as they are practiced on television is considered barbaric, not socially integrated, or inept. A person whose ignorance or even knowing refusal not to practice TV-sanctioned behavior patterns is given the benefit of the doubt, provided she shows herself willing to correct errors once made aware of them, and so long as her eccentricities fall within widely acceptable limits. A lack of knowledge of TV standards of behavior might, for example, indicate a social life so rich and active that the person's social group has evolved from the standard into behaviors far beyond the meager efforts of one's own group.

Then again, there is always the remote possibility that the person is an alien, newly beamed down from outer space, or a foreigner whose channels are all different and holds no passion for Americana, or a lost wolf-child who has bumbled through life seemingly without the benefit of any television whatsoever. Based on the occasions when I have fallen into the role of lost wolf-child in that sense, I would surmise that humans, Liadens and all other thinking beings are equally frightened and off-put by the discovery that you and they have no common source of culturally expected behaviors. Whether they sketch a hasty bow and retreat (Liaden style), or nod and smile in a frozen sort of fashion while edging unobtrusively towards the door (American style), there is no help for the situation. One must pick up Volume One and turn to the index or plop down in front of the set and start surfing, or risk remaining a pariah for life.

But do not despair, children of the children of the counter-culture! For even lacking in a large and opinionated social group to facilitate the process, one's individual responses to the standard have been known to suffice. So long as there is a response, preferably one which reveals an ironic and nuanced understanding of the social values and obligations of duty inherent in the standard, this is enough to allow strangers to judge one's character. If for example, your favorite Simpsons character is Nelson Muntz's mother, but you put up a spirited defense of your unusual choice and remain conscious of the irony, then few social groups will fail to accept you with open benefits of the doubt!