Last month, five thugs wreaked havoc on a south London supermarket. One of them punched and kicked a worker on the ground. Another smashed an object on the head of a disabled client before hitting him and knocking him off his wheelchair. One victim ended up in hospital.
As shocking as the violence was the realization that many had seen innocent and vulnerable people attacked. At least one passer-by recorded the incident on a smartphone. No one seems to have tried to intervene.
Before we rush to condemn passers-by, however, ask yourself if you could not have put yourself in danger. There were five perpetrators, apparently fit, strong and violent. Would you be sure you can overcome them? Could you be sure they weren’t carrying weapons? Would others support you? What was the skill and distance of the supermarket security guards?
Honest answers to these questions help us understand how we have become a society of waiting and observing, in which bad people are afraid. Instead of fear of being apprehended while attacking others, thugs are often brazen in their criminality and violence. Instead of coming to the aid of others, many of us are afraid of getting caught up in something scary and brutal.
The supermarket incident is an extreme example. But consider less alarming scenarios. Would you say something to someone who throws trash or lets their dog clog the sidewalk? Could you stop some teens from vandalizing a playground or bullying a classmate after school? Would you stop a thief or step in when a man threatens a woman in a fit of road rage?
There are understandable reasons why you might not. But the fact that we may be reluctant to intervene at such times shows how the norms of our society are stacked in favor of the wrong people doing the wrong things. This is a serious problem in itself, but it is also a problem which gives rise to others. The more disbelievers get away with minor acts of irresponsibility, anti-social behavior and criminality, the more confident they and others are that they can get away with the worse.
A society with a greater willingness to control behavior might not produce more heroes to take away when serious crime does occur. But he would experience less serious crime in the first place by addressing what used to be called the root causes of crime. Fathers would be expected to play an appropriate role in the education of their children, even if they do not live at home. This would give greater support to principals who impose discipline in their schools. He would have no tolerance for the noise, litter, graffiti, disrespect and bullying that are all too common in our cities. It would value aspiration, education and hard work.
In other words, a society in which we are ready to place expectations on others and accept them for ourselves, and in which we are ready to speak out against unacceptable behavior and support those who do the same, would be a more resilient society, more capable of creating virtuous circles than vicious ones.
And yet, this argument is largely overlooked. When ministers grapple with political problems, the solutions they debate focus on government action and its effects on individual freedom and responsibility. The role of community – how we can come together to help each other, how social expectations can shape better behavior – is often forgotten.
Because the notion of community – or at least the idea that strong communities can take care of themselves – is no longer in fashion. The expectation that we can take responsibility not only for ourselves, but also for our families, neighborhoods and those in need is often seen as a burden. The belief that our behavior could be better when controlled not only by individual conscience and legal boundaries, but also by social norms, is seen as critical or cruel.
And to be fair, in the past it was sometimes like that. We take a look back at how families and communities once treated people who were gay, or had children out of wedlock, or divorced, or had the wrong color of skin, or fell in love with the wrong person, and we let us feel relieved that these days are behind us.
But is it really true that cruelty and injustice are inherent in community and social norms? Is it really true, as one skeptic put it, that community advocates want Salem without the witch trials? Or, conversely, to hope for a world without standards and without judgment, as well as to hope to recreate Las Vegas without misery and social problems?
The honest answer is yes, a stronger community could run the risk of empowering authoritarians and self-righteous people. But there is no reason to believe that stronger social norms would restore value judgments that we no longer support. As the Campaign Against Racism has shown, social pressure can uphold modern moral standards as well as old ones.
Allowing a little authoritarianism – which itself can be controlled and resisted – would be a small price to pay anyway to escape the gratuitous morality that our society sometimes resembles. Judging and punishing the reckless and irresponsible is after all the purpose of having and applying social norms.
But if we give up, if we find the very idea of social norms too critical, we’re not going to end up with moral neutrality in their place. We will have, as we already know from experience, negative and destructive norms that will cause us serious social problems. Just think of how gang membership has replaced family identity for many young people, and how apathetic and anti-aspirational cultures exist in many communities.
“Men are qualified for civil liberty,” Edmund Burke once wrote, “in exact proportion to their willingness to put moral chains on their own appetites.” The great conservative thinker argued that if we are unwilling to exercise restraint in our behavior, we risk losing our freedom of state action. But the moral chains that we impose on ourselves do not always have to come from within. They can also come from outside, from the community around us. We need to stop being so reluctant to judge people and demanding more of ourselves and others.