Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who Are You When No One's Looking?

How much of how we act is a result of who we are, and how much of it is the result of social pressure exerted by those around us and the norms and regulations imposed upon us?
Most of us like to consider ourselves ethical people.  We like to believe that we would be good people, even if there weren’t any consequences for acting in ways that are contrary to existing laws and norms. For example, I like to believe that I wouldn’t purposefully hurt someone for the heck of it, even if it wasn’t against the law. But, in fact, I think we’ve all seen that this isn’t necessarily true. We often act and speak differently depending upon whom we’re with and where we are. People who make sexist or racist comments in private, but hold their tongue in front of those they don’t know well or who would be offended.

This can also hold true when we travel, when we’re in a place away from ‘our’ culture, norms that hold true at home may not apply. Think of men who travel to other countries to abuse children, and justify it by citing the normalcy of it in the place they are and the availability of children. Or people who would hold their tongue in the US, but have no problem calling entire cultures or countries ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’. I’ve noticed that the tendency towards disregarding criteria for acceptable behavior increases when (some) people are traveling or working in the developing world. (I can’t speak about whether this happens in the developed world as I have no experience working abroad there.) Somehow it’s suddenly acceptable to be more ‘ist’ of every sort. Whether this is because of the legacy of colonialism and white men’s superiority is still assumed to a greater extent or because the stereotype of the people in that place as less moral or less deserving of commonly held rights is difficult to say and not necessarily generalizable across diverse contexts.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s that people with those attitudes are more likely to work abroad as participating in things like the diamond industry are less likely offend their scruples. Or maybe my naïveté is showing again, as assuming that people working in the developing world want to work to improve things, when in fact they may be there with the explicit goal of exploiting a country’s wealth of resources. So there’s the question, do more people ‘behave badly’ in developing countries, or do people with the desire to do so seek out those places where they are less likely to be criticized or ostracized and in some cases are effectively above the law or local moral order?

Is it being in Las Vegas or the fact that the city’s ad campaign tells you that you can do anything there because no one will tell the people that respect you at home? 

Happy Holidays and here's to positive situational and personal influences, and to the people who act morally and ethically even in their absence.

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