Leading Idea: Establishing civic norms to guide a society (LI-1)

Leading Idea: Establishing civic norms to guide a society

Thinking about what it means to ‘become a nation or people’ can be deepened by thinking about the different ways society is regulated. At this point the people were not just a nation in some technical sense, but were becoming a society. Hhow were they to live together as a society?  How did they learn how to act together in the public sphere? Society is regulated in different ways. Thinking about this leads us to think about the ways  norms, rules and habits play out in public life and in our own lives – for instance we can speak of civic norms (moral and cultural), rules and habits and rituals.  In this passage several norms are described and laws are written out ‘plainly’ in public view on the hilltop. Rituals take place (the way the alter is built), and  norms established (eating together ).  This leading idea spells out the differences between norms, rules, rituals and habits – this is picked up in several of the discussion plans.

Moral Norms are those things we do because we think it is somehow ‘right’ to do them they express values that we try to live by (for instance showing respect to others, care, not starting a fight). We might consider ourselves more fully human if we follow them, or we might think they express values that are important to make society (living with others in community) possible.

Cultural Norms are those things we do because acting within these parameters is  socially acceptable way to behave. They help society to function smoothly and enable us to ‘fit in’ to the world around us (for instance, how short a dress can be before it is too short to wear in public, whether to shake hands or give a person a hug when you meet them or say goodbye, whether it is ok to yell across a shop when you want to get the attention of a friend on the other side). In the case of cultural norms, we might fit into society better by following them, but this doesn’t say they are right (it might be a social norm to get drunk at a party, and we fit in better if we do it, but this doesn’t make it right). In general you are not breaking any law if you go against one of these norms, but they establish guidelines for our interactions.

Rules are things that are legislated by some authority (this might be government, religion, parents, or even imposed by ourselves on ourselves ( where I am the authority behind the rule) – for instance: “I have a rule that I don’t drink alcohol before 5:00pm”). In some cases, rules don’t have to have any moral purpose behind them, they are simply put in place for the sake of efficiency or convenience. In other cases rules are seen as a way of formally encoding and enforcing norms (the rule ‘don’t steal’ and law that punishes people who do, is because we have a moral norm by which we think taking what is not ours is wrong).In this way, rules guide us to be a virtuous society. Rules can also create norms or values (For some Jews, halakhah is seen to create values in this way. for instance, the laws of Shabbat create the value of sacred time, rather than encoding a pre-existing value). The creation of civic values through rules can also serve political ends. for instance, in the Soviet era, it was the law to inform on your neighbor if you saw them acting in ways that weren’t consistent with communism, and it was a rule that served the authorities, but it also then became a value people internalized – a way of expressing the importance of the State over the importance of individuals. People came to regard informing on others as a moral duty.

Habits  are repeated actions – not all habits relate to norms or laws – for instance, I might have the habit of getting out of bed on the left side – it is just something that I have done often enough that it seems natural to continue doing it that way.

Rituals are one way of translating or encoding norms in actions. Because they communicate underlying meanings and values rituals carry symbolic meaning. Rituals can become habits – something we do without a second thought, in which case sometimes the significance of the action can get lost. They become merely a habit.

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