Tag Archives: social norms

What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.

Adele and the local nature of social norms

The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.

While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society (CE*) this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.

Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.

What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.

But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.

None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.

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