Reviews | People can violate social norms, but also revive them


When Cass Sunstein was a young law professor, he stumbled across an older professor talking to a young student in a hallway. Much to Sunstein’s amazement, the professor stroked the student’s hair.

Sunstein later approached her and said, “It was completely inappropriate. He shouldn’t have done that. The student swept it away: “It’s okay. He’s an old man. It really is not a problem.

Thirty minutes later, the same student appeared in his office, in tears. “He does this all the time,” she cried. “It’s horrible. My boyfriend thinks I should make a formal complaint, but I don’t want to.… I don’t want to make a fuss.

In his new book, “How Change Happens”, Sunstein uses this story to make some remarks. First, people’s personal reactions sometimes differ from how society tells them they are supposed to react to a given situation. Second, if you allow people to express how they really feel, they will sometimes accept you. Third, if there is a mass dissonance between how people think they are supposed to act and their real feelings, then you have a situation ripe for radical and sudden social change.

Sunstein’s book is enlightening because it places standards at the center of how we think about change. A culture is made up of norms – simple rules that govern what thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are appropriate when. It is fitting to be dismayed when people hit their dogs. It is inappropriate to ask strangers to tell you their income.

Most standards are invisible most of the time. They are just the water in which we swim. We absorb them unconsciously by imitating those around us. We know implicitly that if we break a standard there will be a social cost, maybe even ostracism.

From time to time, a standard stops working or comes into conflict. People are slow to challenge a broad standard because they don’t want to say anything that might make them unpopular. But eventually some people notice that in fact there are a lot of people who secretly think that a certain standard is wrong or exceeded.

When this happens, permission is granted to make your private thoughts public. More and more people are speaking out and you get quick, cascading changes. There used to be a social penalty for supporting same-sex marriage. Now there is a social penalty for not supporting it.

Sunstein emphasizes the importance of “standards entrepreneurs,” people who challenge old standards and create new ones. I would add that there are at least five different types of standard modifiers, although often a person can fulfill more than one of these roles:

Nomeurs. These are people who describe the context in a new way. They describe the reality around us in a way that makes visible what was previously invisible or taken for granted. Charles Dickens made the poor visible in Victorian England.

Confrontationalists. Social movements move forward by declaring shameful things that were once acceptable: segregation, trash, sexual harassment, etc. They awaken people to the shame of an old norm by actively and visibly facing it. The civil rights movement had a strategy to create a soap opera every day: to do something every day that forces segregationists to display their own hatred and the injustice of their standards. This is how you wake people up.

Illuminators. If the Confrontationalists demolish the old standards, the Illuminators raise new ones. They do this by showing how cool and fair standard breakers are and thus encourage others to copy them. The radicals of the 1960s violated all kinds of norms, but it was illuminators like Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin who created the identity of the counterculture: this is what we are. This is the story we all belong to. This is how we behave.

Organizers. These are people who organize rallies for those who want to change the same standard. These gatherings embolden change agents by reminding them: “There are many of us! They sponsor specific actions you can take to embody new standards. Everyone should recycle.

Celebrities. When famous, beautiful, or cool people embrace a change of norm, you have a mass stunt. That’s when you win over all the people who might not be inherently interested in the cause, they just know that’s how cool people think and act, so they want to do it too.

We live in a time when standards are changing. Donald Trump shattered hundreds of our set standards and gave people permission to say things that were unspeakable just a decade ago. Especially in politics, the old rules of decent behavior no longer apply.

But we all have the power to create cultural microclimates around us, through the way we act and communicate. When a small group of people changes the way they show their approval and disapproval, it can shift social remedies among larger and larger circles. Suddenly revolutions. The whole school of fish changed course in a quick way that would have surprised us before.

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About Marjorie C. Hudson

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