In the United States, there are many things that have been taboo throughout our country’s history. Today, saying that something is retarded is taboo, a positive development to reduce the stigma around cognitive disabilities by preventing people from using the word as an insult. However, in our not too distant past interracial marriages were taboo. Black men could be jailed and worse for entering into a consenting relationship with a white woman. Maintaining social order with taboos can push us in positive directions, but it can also push us in very negative directions. Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature,
“The mentality of taboo, like the mentality of morality of which it is part, also can pull in either direction. It can turn religious or sexual nonconformity into an outrage that calls for ghastly punishment, but it can also prevent the mind from sliding into dangerous territory such as wars of conquest, the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, dehumanizing racial stereotypes, casual allusions to rape, and the taking of identifiable human lives.”
It is hard, even in a world where our digital footprint leaves a trail of everything we do, to police everyone all the time. It is hard to create rules that everyone can follow and obey to help society reach desired outcomes. Taboos are not set in stone and can’t be controlled the way laws can, but they generally do a better job of shaping behavior and desired outcomes than our laws. They don’t require constant policing, but instead rely on feedback that individuals receive when they step close to a taboo or cross the line.
The problem is that taboos can arise and disappear without us fully understanding where they came from and why they disappeared. A law is clearly visible and its destruction or elimination marks a clear turning point. Taboos are harder to control and shape. This is an important thing for us to think about and consider as we engage in society. Do we want to accept politicians who make fun of people with disabilities, even if they are our preferred candidate, or do we want to “cancel” them because they have violated a taboo? Do we want to allow violence in some cases but not others, or do we want to enforce an all-out taboo against violence? These are real questions we face today. Framing them in terms of absolute taboos may or may not be appropriate, but it does change the parameters of the debates and decisions. Taboos have great potential, but also great danger.
A worrying lesson for many people of the Trump Presidency was that much of the order and process for politics in the United States is based on norms with little to no actual legal backing or consequence. Norms help set boundaries for decorum, help us learn how to navigate relationships and spaces, and in nearly all US presidential elections of the past, have helped us manage the transition of power from one president to the next.
Trump demonstrated that norms can be bulldozed by those who are either immune from the consequences of violating norms or by those who simply don’t care about the consequences. We also saw that when norms unravel, people get worried, something Steven Pinker writes about in the context of nuclear weapons in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “a norm that rests only on mutual recognition of that norm is, of course, vulnerable to a sudden unraveling. One might worry … that nuclear nations outside the club of great powers … might not be party to the common understanding that the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable.”
Norms are key parts of our institutional systems, even our international institutions as Pinker demonstrates. We rely on norms because writing down how every law should apply in every situation is not possible. There will always be important exceptions to rules and laws no matter how well we write the laws. Norms guide us and allow us to navigate spaces and situations without having explicit and direct rules and laws for every possible scenario. But norms also become invisible until someone is suddenly violating them.
Tump was dangerous because he disregarded many political norms. Any news he disliked he dismissed as fake news. Even for the 2016 election, which he won, he never accepted the legitimacy of the electoral system. He refused to concede power after losing an election until enough outrage built following the storming of the Capitol. The outcomes were awful, but somewhat limited due to Trump’s laziness and incompetence.
As Pinker notes, norms also govern how most countries think about nuclear weapons. But there is no reason someone couldn’t disregard the norms around nuclear weapons the way that Trump disregarded American political norms. Pinker highlights the danger of a rogue actor or terrorist with a nuclear weapon. He writes about the danger of states like North Korea which may not adhere to our norms. If norms are all that bind the prohibition on the use and testing of nuclear weapons, then there is little that would prevent someone as rash as Trump or the North Korean leader from disregarding the norms and making a decision that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
Norms are often invisible until they begin to unravel. When they do, it can happen suddenly and be very dangerous, especially when those norms surround major transitions of power or the use of nuclear weapons.
“Many criminologists believe,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “that the source of the state’s pacifying effect isn’t just its brute coercive power but the trust it commands among the populace.” People do not respect laws and rules simply out of fear. They may obey and follow rules and laws when they know they are being watched, but that is not the same as actually following the laws because they agree with them or understand why the laws exist.
Humans do not follow every law perfectly. There are some laws we will absolutely follow and some to which we will almost always adhere, and some laws that we will generally ignore. Pinker’s quote is getting to the heart of why there are some laws we will always, or almost always follow, relative to others that we may ignore completely. Whether we respect and trust the state is a big factor in whether we follow the laws, even if we don’t suspect there is any consequence for breaking laws.
When we perceive that the state is unjust in its application of the law, then deliberately disobeying a law doesn’t seem to be as big of a problem. When we sense that the state is corrupt, then we have trouble justifying to ourselves that the state’s laws are important to follow. When we see others doing the same then there is a chance of a positive feedback loop with no one following the law. Brute force is not enough to change our behaviors and get us to actually respect and follow laws. When we trust the government and when we believe the government is responsive then we will be more likely to actually follow the law without constantly trying to cut corners.
Inequalities cannot be solved simply by establishing new standards, criteria, and rules that will apply equally to everyone. When inequality exists, creating new policies and laws designed to be more equitable in how they treat everyone can have the effect of locking in inequality. Such rules can inadvertently give inequality the appearance of fairness and institutional approval.
Matthew Desmond demonstrates how this has happened within housing markets across the country in his book Evicted. For decades, discriminatory housing policy was the norm in our country. At times in our past it has been explicitly authorized in laws and statutes. At other times, it has been openly, yet unofficially, practiced. Today, explicit housing discrimination still exists, but it at least has to be hidden under innocuous motives or carefully crafted lies. Implicit housing discrimination, however, with no one feeling as though they are being discriminatory, is still common and open.
Desmond argues that the history of racial discrimination in housing markets has created a system that perpetuates the inequalities that discrimination deliberately fostered, while appearing race neutral. He writes, “landlords and property management companies … tried to avoid discriminating by setting clear criteria and holding all applicants to the same standards. But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.” Applying universal rules in a system that has been shaped and defined by inequalities does not mean that discrimination goes away. It means that it is codified and approved though seemingly eliminated.
When black people have been incarcerated for years following discriminatory and prejudiced practices, they will be overly burdened by legal denials of housing. When housing policies have driven black people toward eviction at disproportionately higher rates than other groups for centuries, then denying someone on the grounds of prior evictions will disproportionately impact black people. The result is that the discriminatory practices that once existed openly and deliberately to harm minority groups for the benefit of the majority will continue, but with the presentation of authority and fairness under the law. This is how ostensibly equal treatment under the law can have such unequal impacts for people in an unequal society.
In $2.00 A Day Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer explore the connection between illicit activity and poverty in an interesting way. The authors go beyond the trite idea that law breakers lose trust and opportunity for good jobs and advancement and end up poor because of their own actions and behaviors. This is the standard story we tell in the United States, but the reality is that poverty and crime are connected in complex ways and that poverty can often drive people to crime out of desperation or out of a lack of other viable options. This is something we all know, but don’t really like to acknowledge or think too deeply about.
Edin and Shaefer write, “to put it simply, not having cash basically ensures that you have to break the law and expose yourself to humiliation in order to survive.” The authors write about young and single mothers who have trouble finding stable jobs that will allow them to earn enough money to care for their children and families. These young mothers, often regardless of how hard and how many hours they work, are unable to fully provide for their family and face difficult trade-offs such as the choice between purchasing food with food stamps or selling food stamps for cash to pay electrical bills.
Selling food stamps is illegal and those who do sell them often end up with far less cash then what their food stamps are worth. However, when the choice is between electricity, gas for a vehicle, and food stamps, sometimes engaging in illegal food stamp bartering is necessary, even if it means there may be hungry stomachs in the house.
The authors also write about the ways in which poverty drives these women to provide sexual favors in exchange for money, breaks on rent, or help when things go wrong, like a car breaking down. Not only is this illegal for the women involved, it is also humiliating and potentially harmful and dangerous for the women’s health.
Edin and Shaefer present these examples and stories because they reflect a failure and painful reality in the United States that most of us try to ignore or pretend that we are not connected to. Our country has decided that what is more important than dignity and aid to the needy is an external measure of deservingness. We have decided that we will only help those who do what we deem necessary to receive aid. We have decided that there is no floor, whether $2.00 a day poverty or lower, that is too low for an individual if they are not either capable or willing to work and do what we deem necessary to be worthy of assistance. This is a choice we have made across the nation, and within each state and region the dynamics are different, but the outcomes are often the same. People face homelessness, are driven to illicit activity, and must expose themselves to shame and harm if they cannot do what society decided is necessary for them to receive help when they are poor. We are more worried in our country about laziness and dependence on government aid than we are worried about the harms that are associated by poverty and about the potential for a downward and self-reinforcing cycle of poverty.