Mores (from the Latin, pronounced “MORE-aze”) infer judgments about right and wrong. In 19th- century America, for example, divorce was strongly discouraged. In particular, divorced women were typically looked down on as social pariahs or “women of easy virtue.” What were once called “sharp business practices” inferred a moral weight attached to financial dealings. The character of Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol personified immoral behavior on the part of cold-hearted bosses. Taboos are unacceptable behaviors that lead to strong negative sanctions, including banishment or capital punishment. The classic taboo across nearly all cultures is incest. However, there have been odd exceptions. In ancient Egypt, for example, brother-sister marriage was mandated to keep the bloodlines of the pharaohs untainted. The same sort of custom was also practiced in ancient Polynesian societies. Laws are formalized social rules subject to prosecution by agencies of law enforcement. Drunk driving, trespassing, assault with intent to harm, robbery, theft, arson, and homicide are familiar
examples. A peculiar characteristic of laws is their tendency, in some cases, to become outmodedwhile still “on the books.” For example, laws against the use of marijuana have been unraveling over time as public sentiments regarding its uses have changed. The Era of Prohibition ended as public sentiment replaced the largely unenforceable 18th Constitutional Amendment with the 21st Amendment.Language and SymbolsLanguage is the key to all human cultures. Without language our species could not share observations and ideas, much less agree on collective goals that might allow a society to thrive, orat least survive. And so, a remarkable feature of human societies is the human capacity for inventing symbols, such as words. You might say, bees buzz, flowers bloom, and humans symbol.Every culture uses symbols. The most important of these symbols–whether written or spoken as words–is language. If you speak English, the word “butterfly” stands for a little piece of your world map, specifying a kind of insect. If your native language is French, that little piece of your world map is called a papillon; in Spanish it’s a mariposa. All three words identify what English speakerscall butterflies. However, one’s ideas about butterflies and their symbolism are somewhat differentin French and Spanish cultures. And so, by that simple example, we see that one’s native language represents a distinct worldview.The linguistic symbols we use express our interpretationsof the world around us. Thus, as we areinducted into a particular culture, we must learn what words mean before they can stand for anything. For example, the English word “entropy” means nothing until it is explained to us in one way or another. The German expression, Geműtlichkeit–roughly meaning comfortable togetherness in a social setting (such as a beer hall)–has no English equivalent. It’s an expressionthat’s only fully meaningful for people whose native language is German.Beyond language, written or spoken, symbols can be almost anything that conveys meaning.
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- Fall '16