I would like to use the term “self-fulfilling system” to define a system that relies on a self-fulfilling prophecy in order to function.
An example of this is the social rule that states that it is improper to rest one’s elbows on the table while eating. Resting your elbows on a table is of course harmless, as should be obvious because you can do so alone, or with others who do not about this social rule, with no negative consequences for anyone, and no damage done. The mere act of putting your elbows on the table is demonstrably fine until a judgmental person sees you doing it and gets offended, or makes assumptions about you. Despite that, a common justification for following this rule is that others will judge you poorly if they see you doing it. As with many social rules this can be the case and can result in negative consequences, but one would then wonder why others would judge you if it is clear that there are no practical issues with doing so. This leads to circular logic: you should not put your elbows on the table because others will judge you, and others will judge you because you should not put your elbows on the table. Analogously they might argue: the practical issue with putting your elbows on the table is that people will treat you poorly, therefore putting your elbows on the table is demonstrably harmful; putting your elbows on the table is harmful, therefore people will treat you poorly.
What this means is that at some point everyone was fine with putting their elbows on the table, until someone arbitrarily decided that it was not acceptable. They may have taken offense to it, they may have thought it looked ugly, they may have thought it was too convenient, they may have had a very spiky table and could not themselves put their elbows on the table at risk of being stabbed, it may have simply become a tradition, but whatever the reason was, all it takes is a single person to decide that we should follow a system simply because they do not like the alternative. If that person teaches their children that it is bad to put their elbows on the table, the system gains a larger following without justification. If a friend visits them and gets judged for putting their elbows on the table, the friend may be confused but will likely conform to avoid offending others or to avoid an argument. It may be ridiculed at first, but eventually other people would be told to conform to the system when visiting that family. Some of them may come to find it normal, others may dogmatically believe it is true, especially if it is done by people they look up to. If a royal family have a tradition to never eat fish in front of others, then it might eventually be considered “high class” to do the same. Consequently it may be considered “low class” to eat fish in front of someone else. This is how we deem what is fashionable, polite, rude, classy, and even disgusting. Anyone can invent any rule and claim that not following the rule is considered rude, and so long as they can spread the word and have it be believable enough, it can become a self-fulfilling system.
Fashion and social norms are the two most obvious systems that are self-fulfilling. To be more precise, they employ a self-fulfilling prophecy of the form “people will look down on you if you do X”, where X is whatever thing that they do not like, such as putting your elbows on the table. Simply telling someone this prophecy can lead to it becoming true by it spreading and being believed.
These collections of self-fulfilling rules lead to systems that promote a way to dress, socialise, or other things. A more practical field such as engineering cannot afford to adopt such rules unless they do not conflict with the science that defines them. One cannot say that it is improper to make screws that turn anti-clockwise rather than clockwise, because some machines may cost more to build if they were all forced to use the same screws, or worse, they may compromise the material strength and the machines would break. Practical fields may employ norms for standard practices, but these are practical arbitrary norms. An example of this is the standardised assignment of which side of the road to drive on. If we did not have this arbitrary norm there would be much more disorder when travelling at high speeds, leading to crashes. The same principle allows people to walk past each other without having to figure out which side to stay or switch to. Standardised screw shapes are convenient, but are not enforced because it is reasonable and well known that there are exceptions to these rules. Exceptions are not as common in high fashion and “high class” situations, where practicality and reason and often abandoned, and the rules are dogmatically followed. Anyone who does conform is berated and judged as offensive (rude/improper), or inferior (poor/low class/poor taste).
Since the rules in these systems are so easily fabricated, either as arbitrary preferences or outdated traditions, it should be clear that they are not reliably reasonable. The rules should be analysed and abandoned if they serve no purpose other than to make some people happy because they like tradition. If everyone forgot that putting your elbows on the table was considered improper, then we would all be able to do it and would have one less thing to worry about. It would be far more liberating and creative if we could wear whatever we liked instead of having to wear what is currently considered fashionable, simply to avoid judgment. Girls would not be forced to be cold while wearing skirts as part of their uniforms, boys would not be forced to be hot in trousers.
A major issue with self-fulfilling systems is that they can continue to survive even if they do not work. Proponents of social norms might say that what they are doing is good because it prevents people from being offended, but this is their solution to a problem that they created. They might also point to the solutions to genuine problems, while ignoring the problems created by the system. They look at only the solutions, and assume that the problems are unavoidable. This is linked to the circular logic mentioned previously, where the solution and the problem must both exist for either to make sense, but it would be better if neither existed. It is analogous to a religion or cult that continues to practice rituals despite there never being any proof that of their effects. So long as everyone in a society follows the rules, the system functions as intended, without deviations or new problems. It is a state of stagnation where we accept unneeded suffering because it is stable and controlled. A leader could convince their people that it is rude to disobey orders, leading to a self-imposed dictatorship because the people have accepted an arbitrary rule without questioning it. They would be more concerned with a protester being rude than with their own freedom, because they have prioritised conformity over reason.
Another reason that problematic systems continue to exist is that people become invested in them, and are reluctant to accept change. It is easy to think that you are right to be offended at all the things you think are bad, because you think they simply are bad without reason, or because they make you feel bad. The latter case is another example of circular logic: rude things are bad because they make you feel bad, but they make you feel bad because you were told they are rude. Consider then all the things that you were not told are rude; they do not make you feel bad until you are told that they are rude. If both you and the person who said the supposedly rude thing do not know that it is rude, then no one is hurt. Consequently, if no one is told that anything is rude, then no one will be offended by them ever again.
I think that this sort of analysis would effectively cripple systems such as fashion and social norms. Arbitrary rules seem to be so deeply and fundamentally engrained into them, that without those rules the systems would cease to function. I consider this to be a good thing, because it will lift the weight of social pressure from our lives, allowing us to be more practical or creative. These systems should be reformed to offer the same advantages without the drawbacks of the illogical systems that were improvised over centuries. We rely on these systems to facilitate socialisation and other things, which creates social problems that we are told to simply accept, while also making it more difficult to change because it would be like trying to fix the foundation of a house while still living in it.
Instead of creating a system of rules for what not to do to offend people, it would be far better to teach people to not be offended by things that do not matter. Instead of being offended when called obese, people should be taught that so long as they are healthy, being obese is not a problem. This contradicts another social norm, where people are pressured to live up to certain standards of beauty, which is linked to objectification. This is why we must analyse the systems as a whole rather than single rules; trying to fix individual rules would be like trying to untie a mess of wires, where loosening one wire may tighten another.
Instead of pretending to be interested in what someone is saying, purely to avoid offending them, it would be better to be honest and avoid a boring, one-sided conversation. Most people would say that it is rude to say you are not interested, but there is no reason to think this is rude unless it is malicious or inconsiderate. It will well known that everyone has different interests and dislikes, so it does not make sense to assume that everything you say to someone will interest them. Sometimes you might bring up a topic that does not interest them, in which case that person should tell you politely, and then you can move on to another topic, or you can explain why the topic is important even if it is not interesting. The alternative, which we currently do, is to simply be bored, judge the person as boring, and lie to them. This means that the speaker would rather you be completely bored than to know the truth and be offended. I would argue that this is far more inconsiderate of the speaker, since they do not care about what you feel, than it would be inconsiderate for you to (politely) tell them the truth. An honest social experience is possible so long as no one follows the arbitrary rules that tells them when they should be offended.
If we replaced these systems with more reasonable ones, we could for instance say that malice should be our primary concern, not a checklist of social faux-pas.
I will now mention, simply to address possible pedantry, that this type of self-fulfilling prophecy is not guaranteed to work. It may fail, and most people will simply recognise that it is an arbitrary rule that no one agrees with. This point is pedantic because whether or not this phenomenon strictly qualifies as what the official definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy is or not is entirely besides the point. This essay is attempting to describe and analyse the phenomenon, not categorise it into philosophical, sociological, or others terms. It is not attempting to equate it or use connotations from other well defined fields that are usually associated with self-fulfilling prophecies, as I am not qualified to do so nor aware of what they may be. The point here is, regardless of what the phenomenon is called or categorised as, this essay is simply attempting to describe it and show the consequences of it. If it turns out that this is not strictly a self-fulfilling prophecy, then the phenomenon should be renamed, but it should be clear that I associate no connotations or implications with this phenomenon based on the name I chose; the name appeared to fit, I cannot associate implications that I am not aware of.
We must question the rules we promote, otherwise we might only see the solutions they make while ignoring the problems.