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151 I can't do that

Described with arch diction, a behavior trait belonging to the simplest social graces is analyzed and found to be an element of momentous cultural significance. What starts lightly becomes deadly serious.

Unwelcome behaviors


We unconsciously internalize mannerisms, taboos, and habits we acquire from diverse sources: parents, peers, influencers, even enemies. At first, we are too young to question our own behaviors. Later in life, we are otherwise occupied, reluctant to examine ourselves. Our quirks get into us undetected. Some transfers to posterity are deliberately planned by the people whose paths we follow. In parenting, this is the standard practice of setting an example. This can be done with conscious intent, or a collective unconscious can accumulate and perpetuate itself without intentional reproduction. A generation rises copying its elders with or without awareness it is repeating patterns. Likely this underlies at least some of British common law, upon which American law was originally based. By abolishing common law, we are trying to be more thoughtful about codifying social norms.

In the vast realm of unconscious or subconscious behavior, unquestioned practices can become unfit for perpetuation. More reasoned habits replace traits like absolute mindless loyalty to tribe and instinct to flee in alarm from strangers. As society becomes more sophisticated, relationships become more nuanced and customized, and we discern whether innovation is rebellion or improvement.

Unthinking examples

When another car passes mine travelling 20 miles per hour faster, dangerously close to my front bumper, I remain completely unruffled. My conscious reaction is purely to be thankful for being missed. In fact, I usually have confidence that the other driver is alert and has the skill to pull off the maneuver. Another setting of potential danger is the stop light that the driver beside me completely ignores. Again, I am totally unharmed by the misbehavior. Absent impact from a third vehicle, I am not damaged. Am I nonetheless unconsciously disturbed by these violations?

Outside the realm of the law, sometimes abridgement of social graces threatens to upset me. Somebody makes a clumsy move or statement or exhibits behavior that has been trained out of me. If the purported offender is not taking anything of value from me and is not directly impinging on my well-being, I have no justification to condemn. My expectations might be injured, but I am not.

So why the reaction?

Occasionally I do slip into a negative response, either to traffic violations or to ungraceful actions. I return the affront or pass it along. Knee-jerk reaction seems to be inborn and is not easily eliminated. The pattern is "you do something not nice; I copy you." Sadly, when this occurs it not only perpetuates grievances, but it also enlarges them.

Self-analysis to the rescue! Unaware of my negative reaction, I might still hope to recognize the bad feeling it brings. Carrying forward anything unpleasant or condemning anyone is depressing-creating a condition I can identify. Detecting my annoyance or anger, I am on the path to analyzing it.

As a result, I have discovered my underlying complaint: I can't do that, so you can't either! It is so simple to say, yet so difficult to overcome. We all sometimes experience this jealousy emotion. When the driver cuts me off, I'm not jealous that I don't get to retaliate. Instead, I'm jealous when somebody claims free rein to do anything I am restrained from doing. I feel disadvantaged that I have less license to misbehave than the other person does.

It gets worse

The jealousy problem is more than the bruised emotions that affect me. The problem compounds when it escalates to revenge, an emotion that subtly injures me and can lead to injury of others. The law of retaliation was a flawed directive from the beginning, as it poisons the offended along with the perpetrators. Fortunately, my frame of mind never becomes a desire to copy stupid driving. Revenge motivation is never triggered; I have conditioned away all connections to it. Indeed, I often wonder whether intolerance is learned instead of instinctive.

What to codify as law

We are analyzing more than emotions and social graces. When the law says, "you can't do that" we tend to add the next word and say, "you can't do that either." That last word personalizes the issue as we compare the ruling to ourselves. We selfishly apply to others the restraints we acknowledge on ourselves. A prime example is the prohibition era which taught us that forcing abstinence from alcohol ("you can't do that") is not an effective cure for all social ills. Examining the prohibition more closely reveals that we are unconsciously appending "because I can't drink." We are imposing our own standards on others. What purports to be moral indignation is jealousy over a repressed desire for license.

Moral principles

Laws against murder are a different order of magnitude from traffic laws and regulations against alcoholic beverages. There is universal acknowledgement that killing people is rightly and necessarily prohibited. "You can't do that" easily stands on its own as a moral principle.

Nevertheless, by looking deeply enough at myself, I can uncover a jealousy component lurking under my outrage at murder. Although I never want to kill anybody, at least not consciously, there is the argument that I do not give license to others to kill because I do not have such license. In supporting a law against murder, I am unconsciously adding the terminal word "you can't kill either."


If violence is forbidden, does it matter why we forbid it? Perhaps not, but the discussion of jealousy applies to sentencing. Using the extreme example of murder, note that the murderer can be physically restrained, incapacitated from repeating the offense. That does not require killing the murderer. When humans do impose capital punishment, let them examine whether they are feeling personally disadvantaged, that is, being jealous that they do not have license to do what the murderer did. They reverse the phrase above to mean "I can do that because you did." They are giving themselves the coveted license to kill. Executioners (lawmakers, judges, juries), do you ever realize you are acting out ignoble jealousy?

Corollary: abortion

My father occasionally repeated the quotation: "If you want to know a man's weakness, learn what he finds intolerable in others."

Medically indicated abortion is the current focus of the desire to control others. Abortion bans are based on imposing the will of those with repressed desire for license who are saying "you can't do that either (because I can't)."

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