The human animal is a creature of habit. We follow well-worn behavioral paths, because they make life simpler and easier. If I were to project constant spontaneity and originality into every moment, I would achieve the definition of lunacy.
When a community embraces some habit over time and across large populations, it becomes a convention. Both mean performing some action in a way that feels right, but a convention is shared: it has a social dimension lacking in purely personal habits. The shared feeling of rightness has been a powerful driver of human behavior. It seems to develop in early childhood, and it commands obedience to the end of life.
Like habits, conventions simplify daily existence. If each of us had to learn from scratch an original way to speak, write, play the piano, or drive a car, our progress would be stuck at the amoeba level. Conventions thus liberate far more than they constrain. They open wide the city gates so we can enter into our culture, manipulate its tools, and see farther, because we stand, like Newton, on the shoulders of giants.
Much more than habits, conventions relay information: about persons, places, or actions.
Consider the bizarre convention we call sports. If I observe a man in cap, hose, and a single leather glove, I know he’s a baseball player. If I’m sitting in a bleacher with a crowd of thousands, looking down on a diamond-shaped field, I know I’m in a ballpark – and certain specific behaviors are expected, like drinking beer and screaming at the umpire. And I also know the home team conventionally wears white, the visitors gray – clues about whom to cheer for.
Similar patterns can be found in politics, love, sex, art, friendship, even (as we shall see) morality. Most of what makes life worth living is conventional.
Because convention is grounded in public opinion, it naturally evolves. When I started work, men were expected to wear suits. Today, we wear “business casual,” which is, in fact, tightly regimented attire: dress shirt, dress pants, no necktie. In my office, however, managers still all wear ties – like home whites, clues about whom to root for.
Contradictory or confused conventions usually signal social distress. Women invariably used to wear skirts or dresses at the office. Today, unlike men, their work attire is all over the place. Some may see in this a liberation, but I believe it reveals a profound uncertainty about women’s expectations for themselves.
Americans tend to scorn convention as shallow and conformist. We claim to prefer originality, individualism, depth of self-expression. Our heroes are loners and rebels. The problem is that these qualities, to be intelligible, must be delivered in some conventional form.
To the extent that there’s any reality to the American craving for being real, it’s a shared affection for a certain kind of style. Style binds sublime ideals to trivial objects in an active display of rightness: it’s the poetry which brings the prose of convention to life. The American style is spare, lean, ornery, and solitary; and we each asssume this style, more or less successfully, by trial and error, study and rehearsal, never by an outburst of personal expression.
Every convention originates in an ideology: a moral structure, if you will. In their totality, and when style is added to the equation, conventions drive us toward a moral ideal, a sort of perfect person – the brave warrior, the good father, the public-minded citizen – even as they wall us off from outsiders, the gentile and the barbarian.
In Jordan, Bedouins and Palestinians wear identical checkered headgear: one is red, the other black. In Spain, as late as the civil war ladies in the city wore hats, but peasant women wore shawls. Conventions help to distinguish us from them in the public sphere no less than the baseball field.
I can’t see how any moral ideal can become human behavior without a convention intervening. Even if one internalized an ideal in some wholly original way, that would not be communicable unless it became conventional. This is certainly true of behaviors necessary to a pluralistic community, which ultimately rest on persuasion and public opinion.
But it is also true in spades of those ideals based on revealed religion. Judaism, Christianity, Islam – the very names conjure a wealth of rituals and conventions that affirm the faith and right behavior.
The God of the Torah, of the Gospels and the Koran, not only approved of convention but commanded many: no doubt he knows, much better than we do, that the good life begins not with a flash of insight or an existential crisis, but with shared habits pushing us inch by inch toward perfection.