Throughout history, the differences in societies can be clearly viewed by examining the core values of the society. The Bushido Code defined Japanese society during World War II by promoting loyalty to the Emperor and sacrifice for the Empire. The Ten Commandments defines Judeo-Christian society by forbidding murder, falsehood, lying, stealing, and coveting. The United States’ Bill of Rights preserved what was considered by the Founding Fathers to be the most important civil liberties: the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom of press, and the right to bear arms. A society perceives events through the lens of its values. Therefore, any question asked to measure a society must reflect the society’s central belief or legal system. The list of core values of a society can be long and cumbersome. The question I would ask to define any society is more succinct: what actions are wrong or forbidden?
Considering actions outside the moral and cultural boundaries is so illustrative because these actions often lead to societal backlash and upheaval. In Hong Kong in 2014, protesters flooded the streets, seeking autonomy in the nomination of political candidates, a moral principle developed under the years of rule by the United Kingdom. To the Chinese government, open nominations are unacceptable because the government perceives the world through the lens of communism, valuing the interests of the state above those of its citizens. In this situation, both parties felt led to defend their beliefs, leading to massive protests by the students and a stubborn response by the government. The situation in Hong Kong shows that the question of what actions are forbidden can be applied by a society to its government and also by the government to the society.
In the Middle East, Islamic State has conquered large areas of Iraq and Syria, posting gruesome videos of beheadings online. Islamic State’s brutality has been further demonstrated in its use of rape, murder, and ethnic cleansing in its conquered territories. International outcry against these actions has been intense and a coalition of nations has been formed to strike back against Islamic State. Why did the international community decide to intervene? Vicious killings, such as these beheadings, are forbidden in the nations involved in the coalition. We perceive those actions as wrong, so we take action to stop them. The question of what actions are wrong or forbidden shapes the foreign policy of societies, guiding the society’s interaction with other nations. Violations deemed as wrong may be addressed with military action, a huge commitment by a society, further illustrating the value of what is forbidden as a question measuring a society.
A society gives power to things it makes illegal. To define a society, one must consider what moral and political views are valued by the society and what actions the society not allow. A true picture of a society cannot be painted without realizing what that society forbids, as what is forbidden reveals so much about the moral compass of a group of people.
What does America forbid? But more importantly, what does that say about us?
I'll leave that to you to figure out.