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The Argument for (Occasional) Modesty

posted Mar 21, 2012, 10:39 AM by Vishal Jain
I've often wondered why human society has deemed certain topics of conversation "improper" and others "appropriate" in varying contexts. There are taboos that are of obvious evolutionary value -- like those that prevent genetic variability, and ones that prevent self-extinction -- but others have always struck me as odd. For example, why is it so in appropriate to talk about blood, guts, and sex in front of kids, or at work? Why are "4 letter words" banned at schools, and looked-down upon in conference meetings? The "why" may seem obvious to people who instinctively follow social conventions, but to freethinkers, it is just as automatic to question these norms.

What adds more intrigue to this topic for me, are the instances of individuals who indulge in inappropriate language and behavior in one aspect of their lives, but disdain upon it in others. Case in point: the american senator who sexted women while refraining from indecent language in his political campaigns.

It seems more trouble than it's worth for a person like this senator to have to exercise cognitive power deciding when it is or isn't appropriate to behave "lewdly". Would it not just be easier if society routinely accepted lewd behavior? Granted in his case, there were confounding issues of pedophilia and adultery which we won't address here, but more generally there is still a context in which obscene behavior is considered inappropriate.

It struck me this morning, as I was reading through the obscene twitter posts of numerous VC investors and wondering whether I will ever have as much free time as they do to tweet so often, that it may at times pay off to free our mind of lewd thoughts. Why? Well, if we tried to convince a group of Bonobo monkeys to focus on a mathematical task for 4 hours, i have a feeling they would have a hard time. They are so conditioned to fulfilling their hedonistic needs with such frequency that the moment a sexual or other hormonal distraction surfaced in their limbic system, they would forfeit the "work" task to focus on play.

Likewise, if we were to allow people to constantly joke about sex, or to provoke "inappropriate" thoughts in an office workspace, people might allow their minds to wander to lascivious places that would surely lure their attention away from search engine optimization algorithms, or whatever else is on their desks. I believe we as a society have found that creating "contexts" for appropriateness has therefore allowed us to maximize our productivity.

In the work context, we use the social-emotional tactic of "taking offense" to guard our tribe against limbic assaults on our concentration. We focus on work, and consider any gut-level distraction obscene. However, in the context of play -- in social places, bedrooms and bars -- we obviously allow indecent behavior because it has procreative benefits.

I imagine the same principle applies to children and school. Children will be hardwired to, like Bonobo monkeys, indulge in lewd behavior when they mature. We are not concerned of their inability in that regard. However, they may not necessarily have as easy a time focusing on mentally challenging tasks. For that reason, using the concept of "obscenity" -- even to the point of censoring phrases, verbs and adjectives associated with hedonism -- to enact a dichotomy between work and play may allow the underdog in this battle for attention to gain points without having to compete with indulgence.

Humans have a love for dichotomy. Perhaps because it asks little of our cognitive resources and simplifies our decision-making, so we can focus on productivity. And while i can't say i follow such norms with adroit consistency, i wonder whether there isn't an economic benefit in honoring the wise words of our good friend Ludacris who suggests being, "a lady in the streets, but a freak in the sheets."
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