Context Is Everything

Context is everything.  That’s what my wise acquaintance Dutch Rall taught me years ago.  (I think he learned it from someone else, too.)

The more I think about it, the more I realize how fundamental that concept is in figuring out everything.

In short, a context determines when a particular theory, hypothesis, advice, concept, or statement applies.

“Don’t cross the sidewalk when the signal is red,” is a sound advice.  But we all know we don’t follow it all the time.

To a three-year old, we should tell him/her to follow this advice, without giving conditions.  The default for the above concept is true, and you don’t want to confuse a young mind by giving lots of conditions where you can break that rule.

But if you’re a grown-up, walking hurriedly to see your dying parent before s/he passes away, maybe you’ll feel justified to break the rule.  (Of course, we have to assume that every time you cross a road, you look both ways to verify that there are no cars coming.)

But maybe not if you hear an ambulance’s siren nearby.

Or maybe it’s not an emergency like that.  It’s just a pretty small road where cars rarely come.

But maybe not if there’s a tight curve nearby that obstruct your view and you know cars that do come tend to speed.

Or maybe it is a big street but you can safely follow all the other pedestrians jaywalking.

But maybe not if there’s a police officer nearby looking menacing.

See how there’s a statement that defaults to true as the foundation, but whether it applies or not depends on the context?  That’s a pretty benign example, I don’t know if any of us adhere to that rule rigidly.

But the same concept applies to everything.

Like when you are justified to kill someone.

Like having an abortion.

Like when it’s OK to steal.

Like when to tell the truth.

There may be best practices and default answers that apply to most of situations.

But few of them apply universally, without exceptions.

That’s why laws get complicated.  Mature systems and world views grow to accommodate different contexts.  Few things in life are black and white.

Part of being a grown-up, is to realize this.  It’s important.