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From this Perch: The boiling frog fable can lead to broken threads

Keith Rodli

While visiting family in New Orleans recently, a spray-painted manhole cover caught my attention.

"FIGHT SOCIAL NORMS!" read the stenciled message.

Social norms are basically informal rules about acceptable group behavior.

My guess is that the spray-painted message was a statement by someone who feels screwed-over by society.

I am pretty much a glass-is-half-full guy. But that's what might be expected for a white, straight male who has never tasted discrimination or injustice.

So I like social norms.

Still, the more I thought about this, the more I realized that some social norms are problematic, and a fight for change can be a good thing.

For instance, throughout U.S. history it has been completely normal to discriminate against people for reasons of class, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion.

But it's the healthy norms I'm drawn to here — aspirations for most of us and norms that are worth preserving.

They can be seen as the threads that hold the fabric of society together.

There are many of them, but I'll pick one such norm as an example:


Let's break it down.

There is such a thing as being kind for no reason other than personal gain. Call it strategic kindness. That's not the kindness I have in mind.

Then there's kindness that involves the "magic words:" "Excuse me," "please" and "thank you." Worthy signs of courtesy.

But what I'm really focusing on here is a deeper level of kindness, one that comes from deep in the heart.

Genuine kindness expects nothing in return.

Its reward is that it feels good in the kind person's heart.

It's interesting to note that the etymological root of the word "kind" is kin, as in "related." Family. Sometimes we can get the best understanding of a word by looking at its opposite. In the case of kindness, the opposites include traits like arrogance, rudeness, mean-spirited name-calling, spitefulness and smugness.

Folks who act in these ways can't possibly be at peace at a deep level. Like gluttony, mean-spirited behavior might feel delicious in the moment. But afterwards? We all know what it feels like then.

Genuine kindness is a core teaching of the world's major religions — whether it is practiced or not. Top that teaching as an endorsement.

I wish it were the case that healthy social norms automatically stuck around forever— without any need for vigilance on the part of society.

But that notion seems dead wrong because social norms can wither and die.

One way that this can happen is through desensitization. We get used to the opposite of kindness, for instance, and before we know it, an important social norm goes missing.

You've heard of the boiling frog fable: if a frog is put in room-temp water and that water is slowly brought to a boil, the frog won't realize what's happening in time to jump out, and will die.

So there's the risk I see when it comes to the devolving of healthy social norms. We can become immune to conduct that would ordinarily be viewed as outrageous.

Am I being idealistic? Is heart-based kindness a luxury in the "real world?"

Here's a "real world" truth in my book: if we dismiss consistent kindness as naive, what are we teaching our children?

I'll try another metaphor: those threads that hold a fabric together.

You can repair one or two broken threads. But enough broken threads? The whole fabric can fall apart.