Norms Precede Governance

“A gradual shift in sensibilities is often incapable of changing actual practices until the change is implemented by the stroke of a pen,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. What Pinker explains is that governance, at least in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, relies on feedback from the people. Support for a given policy or position must build before a policy or position will be enacted into law or change existing law.
Pinker’s view is similar to a punctuated equilibrium theory of public policy (or of any change). Slowly, our attitudes, views, and opinions change and we then see sudden shifts in the law. For a few decades in the United States, views toward marijuana slowly shifted until sufficient support enabled a rapid change in laws around marijuana. Over a few decades people’s fear of gay people and gay marriage changed until the point where many states suddenly began to approve gay marriage. Opinions slowly shift and build until sudden large shifts in policy occur to align laws with our new views.
Pinker argues that this theory can also be seen on a global scale in the way that humans relate to and think about violence. Moral agitators and debates changed people’s sensibilities around slavery, public hangings, and head first football tackles. The first two were outlawed as public sensibilities changed and now are unthinkable in the United States. What once was common place is now seen as barbaric. Head fist football tackles are moving in the same direction. No one alive today remembers the effects and the violence of American chattel slavery first hand, nor does anyone remember witnessing public hangings first hand (this a broad generalization – someone may still be living who attended a public lynching). As a result, we couldn’t even imagine living in a world with chattel slavery or public hangings. The argument is that head first football tackles will also eventually be unimaginable once no one playing the game remembers a time when they were the norm.
Pinker’s argument is a good way to look at our changing views, opinions, and laws surrounding violence. His thoughts on people forgetting about violent practices and having those practices become unimaginable is also a helpful way to look at historical shifts in our relationships and understandings of violence. But they are not the only public policy theories that can be applied to the use and opinions of violence in our country. This view doesn’t factor in windows of opportunity for changing our relationships and views toward violence. His views don’t address the multiple streams of public opinion that include policies, problems, and politics. For each specific violent issue that could make its way to the agenda, there is a host of reasons why society may focus on that one area, why our sensibilities may change, and why policy may change to reflect those sensibilities. Pinker does seem to be correct in saying that all of these factors are moving us in a less violent direction, with periods of equilibrium punctuated by changes followed by periods where we forget that violent practices used to be common place.

2 thoughts on “Norms Precede Governance

  1. I don’t know if you read these but I found an entry on ego and fairness almost 3 years ago. (May -19)

    If you are interested I’d like to hear your view on my interpretation of the thing so I can further explore my view on the matter.

    I see ego as a closed loop of sort, independent of the acting self. What I mean, it’s there and makes you feel things but if you are in a state of security, you can choose not to act on those feelings.
    I see it as a self preserving mechanism, protecting you and helping you in motivating living the life you do to acquire resources to sustain in. Sort of like a virus.

    If it feels a sense of action taken against your person, real or perceived, it’s going to react, make you feel hurt. Some podcast-member said his wife forgot his birthday and that triggered some self worth in his relationship. Small things can trigger it. And we feel hurt because the ego is a self sustaining mechanism.
    It wants us to survive so it can keep “living”.

    This guy whose wife forgot his birthday knew it wasn’t a real threat and not even intentional but still acted grumpy and I have had similar experiences with mistakes I’ve done that no one else knew about and I felt bad for a few days. So we feel unfairly treated, maybe even by our selves. The ego is “free” from the body so it can judge our actions too (like the feeling of stupid when the answer gets presented for instance). And we need to balance that fairness for the ego to see itself as good or better again and we might think karma or revenge. Why? To justify it’s existence because without it, we lose our sense of self along the way. It’s existence is to keep us alive and itself too.

    I think (we through) the ego perceives fairness as a resource calculator of cost, output vs input. Why should we put out more effort if others get the same amount of resources for less work? We exhaust ourselves too quickly if we are “used” more than other egos but not rewarded accordingly.

    This is an underlying mechanism that needs to be controlled in a civil society and so many have it under control. That’s why I think it’s a feeling type of indicator and you should learn to act outwards in the way the situation might require, regardless of how the feeling gnaws at you from the inside.

    Would like to know where I’m thinking incorrectly and if anything is unclear in my explanation. Please e-mail me if you feel you want to respond.



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