To be sure I’m understanding him, Gabriel is saying that one should cultivate impatience for busybody ethical “interventions” with ~0 expected benefit. Recycling (in the blue-boxes sense anyway) is a good example, but so are: unplugging phone chargers, endlessly haranguing smokers, posting “let’s take the stairs” signs on elevators, Raising Awareness, looking for satanic/sexist messages in rock songs and video games, etc.

I am sympathetic to Gabriel’s irritation with certain of these little “gestures”, such as the recycling ritual. But there is a thing or two to be said in defense of such rituals.

First, sometimes prosocial actions appear “low-leverage” because not many people have defected from the prosocial norm yet. (The first person to overgraze their sheep on the village green doesn’t see what the big deal is – there’s still loads of grass to spare. The first person to *fail to yell at* the first overgrazer, even less so.)

They may also appear low-leverage because practically everybody is already defecting from the prosocial norm. (There’s only a tuft of grass left; what difference does it make if my sheep finish it off?) In other words, rationalizations for defection are especially available at the beginning and the end of tragedies of the commons.

Second, prosociality rituals, even low-leverage ones, help maintain social capital. Conspicuous blue box recycling may be useless qua environmental intervention, but it signals to my neighbour that e.g. I am not the kind of person who will turn a blind eye when he fails to pick up his dog’s leavings. Social capital, supported by a huge edifice of cultural norms, is relatively invisible to the fish that swim in it every day, and like physical infrastructure it doesn’t disappear the very second its beneficiaries fail to maintain it. But disappear it eventually does, and the transition may be very swift indeed*.

It is also worth bearing in mind that norms can be a substitute for laws, usually operating in domains where the law would be too blunt an instrument. The latin formula “de minimis not curat lex” (the law does not deal in trifles) sums up this attitude. It’s not worth having a law requiring people to hold open doors for old ladies: it’s not important enough, it would cost too much in money and time, it would require all sorts of carefully specified exceptions (also it would reduce the signalling value of the behaviour, but I can’t decide whether that would be good or bad).

Yet holding doors for old ladies, while trifling, is one of many behaviours that by increments improve our social environment. Others include always giving the correct change even when you could cheat, washing regularly, thanking people, picking up your dog’s leavings, shovelling your sidewalk and maybe even your neighbour’s, and not making too much noise at night. Individually these things seem like trivialities, but failing at all of them adds up to misery by a thousand cuts. So if you want these trifles taken care of, but prefer not to have Sin Laws, get norming.

I said at the beginning that I was sympathetic to Gabriel’s point. I think the line between “Reusable Bags” in his pejorative sense and Social Capital Maintenance, which I want to boost a little, lies partly in who the audience is. When I take some low-leverage prosocial action, am I signalling at somebody whose own prosocial or antisocial actions affect my life (a neighbour, a friend, a member of my twitter circle, a family member), or am I degenerately signalling at some super-Dunbar audience of total strangers? These things feel very similar from the inside, but it is worth distinguishing them, because insufficient norming in real life leads to the soul-sucking anomie a lot of us live with, while norm enforcement chimp-outs are ruining the internet.

As usual, the opinions stated above are strongly stated, but loosely held.

* My crackpot theory is that cultural shifts in acceptable behaviour are often so swift because (trigger warning: handwaving) Common Knowledge about what social norms will be enforced easily collapses as soon as there is appreciable diversity-of-norms – look at a graph of e.g. divorce rates from 1960 to 1980.

Author: Simplicio

Engineer, dilettante.

9 thoughts on “Trifles”

  1. This reminds me of Mircea Eliade’s comments in “The Sacred and the Profane” (or was it “Myth of the Eternal Return”) on how the way people systematize their experience of the world into a larger social context, or the consciousness forms of social structure, are still based on community structures that are religious in origin even when secularized. I’m taking you are familiar with his work?

    It does remind me of that aspect of Eliade’s thinking, only extrapolated in that direction away from his focus on the sociology of religion and how the same psychological needs that shape religious worldviews and institutions also are at work in secular society. (after all, the two weren’t really seen as separate until relatively late in history)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read Eliade but it’s entirely possible I’ve absorbed his ideas via other writers. Sarah aka Birguslatro has been a big influence to notice ritualistic behaviours in apparently secular stuff, and to take ritual seriously.


      1. Yeah, I constantly get flashbacks to Eliade in Sarah/Birguslatro’s writing but I wager that might just be a result of my limited frame of reference when it comes to the social sciences because I haven’t seen her quote or mention him yet.


  2. If you look at your smartphone it’s basically slab of metal, plastic and glass with couple of button. When you look at it closer is full of small details chamfers, roundings, grooves, glossy and matte surfaces …

    I think these details are similar are similar to trifles… They create quality. They are the finishing touch.


    1. Yes! But, keep in mind, there is often a tradeoff between usefulness and signalliness. What’s more useless than a diamond? but it signals commitment in a way that a toaster oven doesn’t.

      Also, rituals need gravitas, and novelty kills it.


  3. I spent a month awhile ago in a very nice college town. It was apparent that much of the public leftist activism on display was how you were expected to express that you were a respectable, reliable neighbor in what was really a very old-fashioned, very livable Norman Rockwell community.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re aware “chimp out” is an explicitly racist turn of phrase, right? I’m a relative newcomer to this blog, so I’m genuinely not sure if you’re a casual racist.


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