Neeper: Complexity and the Unspoken Rules

The notion of a dominant common good is politically unspeakable

Don Neeper

Health Editor’s Note: These are some insightful words which are very timely during our pandemic. Don Neeper worked on weapon theory, solar buildings and environmental restoration at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Visit his website at

Established customs and social mores form most of our social rules. How to meet, how to greet, how to set the silverware on the dinner table.

These rules are rarely spoken—not even conscious—unless we are instructing a child in proper behavior. A few rules carry a caveat that says you can’t even talk about the rule itself—it’s unspeakable—like talking about sex in Sunday School.

What’s unspeakable in polite society? Death and disposal. How to manage immigration that becomes mass migration. Family relationships that appear as smiles in church but are resentful at home. Sexual pleasures and problems. Mating and marriage as distinct from our cultural myths of poetry and song. A person’s financial status. When problems are unspeakable, we talk to psychiatrists.

Unspeakable rules are ignored until someone breaks a rule and points to a problem. Race relations were unspeakable until Rosa Parks refused to go to the rear of the bus, and Martin Luther King marched to Selma. Inappropriate touching and sexual abuse at the workplace were unspeakable before Burke initiated the Me Too movement. Discussion of a President’s private affairs was unspeakable until Trump generated many controversies and ignored credit, shame, or blame.

So why be concerned about unspeakable rules?

When a person or an institution speaks about the rule itself—loudly—a movement might emerge in the complex system we call society. The nature of the movement might not become what the initial participants envisioned. The evolution of a complex system is not predictable. The speaking of prejudicial police procedures for persons of color initiated a movement that gained worldwide attention. However, the movement also evolved to include elements of disrespect for police and for the law itself.

The American notion of “freedom” implies that you are free to do anything not restricted by law. That’s a myth, which is not true in society, but to say so is unspeakable. Almost every written or unwritten rule of society restricts freedom. The Constitution names only five specific freedoms.

Those who claim a “freedom” to behave contrary to the public interest regard limiting “freedom” as unspeakable. However, we do not have an inherent freedom to damage the common good, including the destruction of public lands or ignoring social distancing during the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, political leaders have neither recognized the limitations on freedom nor established penalties for misbehaviors that endanger ecology and lives.

The notion of a dominant common good is politically unspeakable.


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