Many have noted that there exist, in society and civilizations throughout the world, certain unwritten rules and standards that are peculiarly more significant and more pervasive than others. Some of these rules don’t even make much sense, but are steadfast nonetheless.
In America, marijuana is, rather by default, considered more sinister than alcohol, even though science has thoroughly proven that alcohol is more destructive and addictive. While plenty of people quietly (and only quietly, you’ll note) admit to smoking marijuana, it’s something that would instantly disqualify a presidential candidate or take the wind out of any serious business meeting. The same presidential candidate, however, might be seen as manly if consuming a cold beer on a hot summer’s day while doing whatever men do—chopping wood, say. Likewise, that formal business meeting is may be accompanied by fine liquor. Nevertheless, our society holds invariably that marijuana is just, somehow, worse—or, more accurately, less acceptable.
Consider, separately, the following two scenarios. You know a couple—a man and a woman—of roughly equal physical strength. Without knowing the circumstances, you see the man strike the woman. If you’re like most Americans, you’d deem the situation wholly unacceptable—men should not hit women. Now consider the opposite—you mosey along and see the woman give the man a good smack. You might wonder what he’d done to warrant this, but you’d probably not react with the same level of internal discomfort as you would seeing the man hitting the woman. Indeed, it is often considered comedic, in American pop culture, for a woman to respond to a man (usually after some sort of indecent proposition) with a good smack across the face. But we would never consider it appropriate for a man to smack a woman in the same way. There is, thus, an evident discordance between what would seem, externally, to be two nearly equal physical interactions. Why is the one acceptable, and the other not?
The answer is mores (MOR-ayz). Often pronounced as it looks (just “more” with an s, or “mores”), social mores are the underlying, nearly imperturbable moral standards on which a culture or society stands. They are not written down, and often they go unexplained because even questioning them is taboo. We just know, or perhaps even feel, that marijuana is somehow a dangerous, evil thing, and that hitting women (specifically, as opposed to hitting men) is wrong.
The mores of a society drive its sense of unity forward but impair its ability to progress toward many new ideas.
Mores should not be confused with what we might call “ordinary” social standards. In the 1950s, a huge number of things which today are perfectly acceptable would have been seen as scandalous. Consider the changes in gender identity, particularly for women: string bikinis, myriad piercings, short haircuts and tattoos—these are things which were unilaterally verboten just half a century ago. Today, they are expressions of one’s identity, and while tattoos or lip piercings may be banned in your particular household, you don’t react with shock if you see someone with them.
Thus, the social standards we follow—the day-to-day cultural norms—are not the same as mores. Mores are far more deeply embedded and last through generations. While they, like everything, do change, they do not do so easily or in the space of one or two generations. If you’ve ever wondered why we’re still “old fashioned” about some things, despite knowing better in point of fact, the answer is mores. These are things that have defined us, and since we’ve been defined by them, we can’t simply shed them and move on.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is a volunteer assistant editor for Jet Fuel Review. He is double-majoring in Physics and Air Traffic Control Management at Lewis, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer. Mark is a junior and works as a ramp traffic controller at O’Hare and at Panera Bread, from which he does not steal dozens of bagels every day. He is also a tutor in Lewis’ Writing Center.