How the abnormal becomes normal. And what to do about it

Terrific piece at NewYorker.com by Maria Konnikova about how politicial elites are able to change norms.  And what we can do to fight back against us.  Really good stuff:

The voice of authority speaks not for the one but for the many; authority figures have a strong and rapid effect on social norms in part because they change our assumptions about what other people think.  [emphases mine] In the United States, one way to study that effect is to examine the decisions of the Supreme Court, a universally acknowledged source of authority. In a study in the September, 2017, issue of Psychological Science, Paluck and Margaret Tankard, of the randCorporation, look at the change in American attitudes toward same-sex marriage before and after the Supreme Court decision that established it as a constitutional right, in June, 2015. In the months before the decision, Paluck and Tankard surveyed people in cities all over the country; they then repeated the survey after the decision was announced. They found that, while personal opinions on same-sex marriage hadn’t shifted in the wake of the ruling, people’s perception of others’ opinions had changed almost immediately. Americans, whether liberal or conservative, thought that their fellow-citizens now supported same-sex marriage more than before, even though, in reality, the only thing that had changed was the ruling of a public institution. The impression created by the ruling was that “more Americans currently support same-sex marriage, and that even more will support it in the future,” Paluck said…

What can we do to counteract the rise of violent and hateful new norms? The social psychologist Bibb Latané argues that norms are more readily transmitted when the person modelling them has a high degree of personal influence and is physically close by the person absorbing them; a student, for example, is more likely to be affected by her professor than by a fellow-student or a professor at another school. One possibility, therefore, is to call upon influential people in small communities to fight the perceived consensus created by larger authority figures. If the President suggests that some neo-Nazis are “very fine people,” but those in positions of power closer to you—such as a pastor, principal, or governor—speak out against him, you’ll be more likely to call into question the new normal that the President has modelled. The new behavior will look more like an outlier than like a norm…

The lesson, Paluck believes, is that influence must spread from all relevant communities to be effective. In middle-school terms, you need both “the kids who are really popular in marching band” and “the leader of the goths” to help change norms. This insight has implications for those of us who want to push back against the Trump Administration’s new normal—the use of emotionally riling speech and epithets, threats of media bans, and so on. Hand-wringing and anger from within “the resistance” is of limited value. The middle-school approach requires participation from every political group. Democrats, therefore, must reach out to leaders in the Republican community and ask them to model a different sort of norm. Moderate Republicans must reach out to sympathetic but less vocal colleagues. “Implore your Republican neighbors to get their formal or informal leaders to speak out,” Paluck said. A broad-based, authoritative counterbalance may well have an impact.

The beauty of norms is that, unlike ingrained hatreds, they are flexible. They shift quickly; with the right pressure from the right people, they can shift back. But the response, crucially, must be broad, and it must come from sources of authority across the political spectrum. Otherwise, behaviors we think of as socially stable may prove to be far more fragile than we’d like to believe.

So, the NeverTrumpers like David Frum and Evan McMullin are doing important and heroic work.  As for the Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s of this world?  They are simply and damnably complicit.

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