Within Reason

This column was published Tuesday, September 4 in The Manhattan Mercury.


When I go out to eat, I don’t walk in to the restaurant and holler out my culinary preferences. I wait to be seated, enter into a social contract of sorts with the system and select from a range of choices presented via a menu. They bring my dinner, I eat, pay up and leave.

I expect to be served a meal. They expect me to pay for it.    

When I get up in the morning, brew a pot of Strong Enough to Walk and pull up my favorite newspapers online, I have an expectation that the front page will contain the most important fact-based news articles and that the opinion section will feature just that.  

When I miss a connecting flight in Chicago or Dallas, I can be angry at the airline over delays or cancellations or I can recognize that norm and plan my travel accordingly.  

If Presidents of the United States choose to blow through boundaries within which his predecessors who held widely divergent political views have succeeded, the system provides checks and balances. If I don’t feel those are working, I can do my part to allow someone else to do the checking and balancing.

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Baked into these system norms is an assumption that I trust someone else’s judgment. I’ll assume if the restauranteur needs to push the spaghetti and meatballs, they’ll make it an off-menu special, instruct their wait staff accordingly, or find some other non-threatening way to let me know.  

Similarly, I’ll trust the judgment of the editors and publishers of my favorite news sites to distinguish which fact-based news stories and opinion pieces are most important, position them accordingly and allow me, their consumer, to consume to my heart’s content.

When I worked in politics and government, I shared a Statehouse office suite with the governor’s general counsel. Brothers-in-arms in the service of a greater good. It was there I learned of the ‘reasonable person standard.’ It’s a legal principle used to represent a hypothetical person in our society who exercises average care, skill and judgment in conduct.

Lawyer-speak for determining societal boundaries. A ‘reasonable’ way to define expectations.  

It is reasonable to expect to be politely asked to put a sock in it, if I’m hollering for spaghetti and meatballs the moment I cross the Olive Garden threshold. It is reasonable to assume mainstream journalism professionals will publish the truth. In 2018, it is reasonable to expect flight delays or cancellations. It is reasonable to hope the Oval Office occupant will respect more than two centuries of American presidential tradition.

I hold these expectations because I have been endowed by my Creator with free will. I am free to write about them in a newspaper column for two reasons: One lofty, one practical. I am bequeathed this right by the founding fathers of my country, who looked around, examined their society, and exercised their best judgment in crafting a system of norms and boundaries called a Constitution. Practical, because the publisher of this newspaper trusts my judgment.

I’ll argue these norms and assumptions are the glue that allows us to move agendas and get things done. They’re the unwritten rules that become the fabric of our culture. We read between the lines and learn them through trial and error. We follow them because experience has taught us that to do otherwise results in adversity or loss.

Reasonable people can disagree within the boundaries of these norms and still move an agenda, get things done, and not suffer undue angst. Angst being an emotionally-derived by-product of change. Systems change and evolve and yet still tend to find their own equilibrium, based on reasonable people exercising free will. This American cultural flexibility is a gift, too easily taken for granted.

In deciding whether to holler in public about meatballs, to trust the judgment of journalists based on their body of work and tradition of truth-telling, to draw conclusions about the character of our elected office holders strikes me as the work of reasonable people to form a more perfect union.

The words, actions and expectations of our social contracts need not be re-written. The difference will be made in the way reasonable people read between the lines.