Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Short Comment

I know I have been writing a lot about social norms lately, emphasizing both the strength of societal norms as well as expressing my fears over the direction society has taken, and I apologize if I seem a bit single minded recently. However, thinking about the reason I find myself touching on the topic so often, I realize that, the more I have people explain to me what is considered "normal" today, the more I worry about our culture*.

For example, many find it odd that I have made a conscious decision not to date until my son leaves home, or, at the very least, until he is old enough to deal with it. (And that does not mean when he is 12 or 14. As someone whose parents divorced in my teen years, I know teens deal with divorce, if anything, worse than younger children.) To me, it is makes perfect sense. I do not want to introduce him to someone new, who he may like, or may hate, and then, when it fails to work out, suddenly remove from his life someone to whom he has become attached. To me it seems the right thing to do. After all, I am his father, I have an obligation to him, and thus I should happily do what is right. But many who hear my ideas think it strange, a sort of self-denial. They imagine that somehow not dating is a terrible hardship.

In fact, even my reasons for not dating seem to trouble some. back when I was going through my divorce, and my then wife and I had to go through mediation to decide custody, the mediator was a counselor of some sort. When I mentioned that at that time my whole focus was on raising my son, that everything else was, not just secondary, but off the bottom of the list, she seemed to believe my ideas were unhealthy, that I was focusing too much on my child. As this opinion came from a supposed mental health professional, one nominally expert in proper human behavior, in what society calls normal and abnormal, that troubled me.

And that worry lies at the heart of other stands I have taken that many find puzzling. For example, my reticence to accept our modern views on mental illness. Given that we define mental illness, at least in most cases**, as deviating from societal norms, the fact that the norms to me seem so abnormal makes me reluctant to grant those who enforce those norms, for example, the power of involuntary commitment. To see someone deprived of freedom, stamped permanently with a record for abnormality, based upon societal standards I find confusing at best, contemptible at worst, is a troubling thought, and why I so often make arguments that even other conservatives and libertarians can't comprehend.

But I have written too much already, I only wanted to offer a short explanation of why my thoughts have so often returned to this topic, and why many of my recent essays might seem a bit melancholy. I am not sure why it has been the case, but recently I have spent more time than usual considering the society around me, and in so doing, I am afraid I have found it wanting, and my writing has reflected that. Hopefully, this mood won't last, and I will be back to writing about other things with which my readers disagree, such as the gold standard, or privately owned roadways, and will leave all these somber reflections on society behind, at least for a while.


* What makes this truly troubling is that I was was a relatively free wheeling, almost amoral teen, and even in my late teens and most of my 20s, though dedicated to first communist and then later, and for much longer, Objectivist politics and economics -- before abandoning the cult of Rand for a more well thought out and sound political philosophy -- I was hardly a social traditionalist. I grew up without much of a religious tradition, and even now, though I take religious thought very seriously, I am hardly active in any religious society. (Though I think that may be more due to a rather introverted nature, not comfortable being part of a group, any group.) I am, by most standards, what would once have been dubbed "bohemian", living a rather structure free life, without much of a hint of the rather dull -- if slightly "ethnic" rather than WASPy -- suburban normalcy in which I was raised. However, unlike most who seem to exist this way, I also have always had a strong sense of what is wrong. Even when I was a hard drinking, skirt chasing punk rocker in my teens, for example, I took great pride in never having stolen anything, in always telling the truth  -- though at times, I admit I failed to live up to my own standards in that regard; but what teen has not? --, as well as a number of other seemingly obvious ethical codes, though ones which were not well respected among my peers. And that is probably what worries me the most, that even someone who is as far from a traditional social conservative as myself is still too "square" and "stodgy" for today's morality. If I can be seen as a boring champion for outdated values, then I really fear for our culture.

** Mental illness is a far too broad term to really argue about in a meaningful way. Given that many individuals with mental retardation have, thanks to funding issues, been dumped in institutes for the mentally ill, and laymen (and even some doctors) confound organic disorders such as dementia with issues for which we have no physical definition, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and the like, it is very hard to deal with it all as a single topic. It is akin to trying to come up with a single statement about "tumors" or "fever", ignoring that both are more symptoms than diseases, having a multitude of causes. Since mental illness is defined the same way we define alcoholism or hyperactivity, by a set of behaviors, we tend to confound many different things under one heading, and thus discussion can easily be made pointless when two people discuss very different things under a single name. But that is a topic for another essay, and I won't try to write the whole thing here in a footnote.


  1. I think it is the curse of those who make it their hobby to ruminate on far-reaching, philosophical subjects to perhaps not see the world with as much cheer and nonchalance as those who devote themselves to just getting through each day in life. At least it seems that way judging from my own experience. I remember when someone once asked my old boss what her 3 favorite things were in life and before I heard her answer I began to consider all the marvels of humanity but then she said football, chocolate and margaritas. I think back on that a lot when the world gets me down, remembering that I love some of those same simple things (although I’m more of a wine gal) and unless and until it all implodes we can still take pleasure in those things.

    I applaud you for putting the needs of your child above your own needs, Andrew. That kind of sacrifice is something that today’s society finds it difficult to relate to. They preach that it’s “unhealthy” because doing so helps to rationalize selfish behavior, and this is the “me” generation. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s always bad for single parents to date; however, it certainly increases the odds that your child will feel marginalized or as you say, be placed in the situation of having to say good-bye to people they’ve formed bonds with.

    I won’t get into the other stuff because I’ve already opined on that but I will note that your position on social norms seems to come with a paradox, because on the one hand you want to leave it to social norms to establish behavioral standards but at the same time you raise concerns about the disintegration of those norms. Hmmm. Time to go have a margarita!

    1. Well, on that last point, yes and no. Or, rather, it is kind of a tricky point to cover, as there are several topics all commingled.

      First, this topic, as others, helps to make my case that social norms do control things much more than we realize, that we don't need explicit laws to see various behaviors controlled and so on. There is much that was once unthinkable that became allowed simply by a shift in norms, or, in reverse, things that are now unthinkable because norms shifted. (For a rather prosaic example, I was watching television from the 80's and was shocked to hear villains in prime time say "the n word", which today is not even said by news casters covering racial incidents. It is a small thing, but so odd to imagine how much taboo has accumulated in such a short time. Ditto for gay marriage. In the 80's, even admitting someone was gay was considered risque. Some shows hinted at it, or worked around the edges, a few admitted it -- LA Law was considered shocking for the kiss between two female lawyers late in the 80s-- while now we hear that opposing the right of homosexuals to marry makes one a neanderthal-like knuckle-dragging thug.)

      (Continues, as I am not sure how close I am to the limit...)

    2. Continuing...

      The second issue is the realization that society works better when issues unrelated to the protection of rights are left to social controls. Of course, how well it work also depends on which social norms are common at a given time. As with every social reform, there are needed preliminary steps and in this case, reforming how we think is important, the modern mindset would make a mess of minimal government, though, in the long run, I have faith giving people more control over their lives, and less hand holding, would encourage self-reliance, which would help to eliminate our tendency toward a perpetual adolescence. So, the two could be self-reinforcing. Les government might actually bring about some of the social changes needed to make less government work properly.

      Finally, I recognize that any representative government, or even a dictatorship, cannot long rule in opposition to the popular will. For all the talk of dictators holding down a populace, dictators really cannot rule unless a significant number believe dictatorship is for the best, or at least inevitable. several thousand, even tens of thousands, cannot hold down millions without some support. Hitler had popular support, as did Mao, as does (unimaginably) the long line of Kims in North Korea. I hate to "blame the victim", but the truth is, people often get the government they deserve, as do we. So, by returning control to the societal standards I am doing nothing more than recognizing this fact, and, in some small way, taking a few small steps toward improvement, as it is easy to be a slave with too much government or a bad society but to be free, we need to eliminate some government. So why not accept bad social controls, since it makes freedom that much easier once our beliefs take a turn for the better?

      I think that is it, though I probably could write even more. But that seems to always be true.

  2. It’s funny but the examples that you chose, using the ‘n’ word and resistance to openly gay relationships, seem to me to be examples of bullying by factions of society who’ve taken it upon themselves to decide what the rules should be for everyone. They’ve evolved into ‘norms’ by means of intimidation, not because they reflected the broader sensibilities of society. Contrast that with the democratic process of enacting laws which involves open debate in which people must PERSUADE a majority to accept their position. That gives laws a certain legitimacy that is absent from the types of social pressure you’re talking about. A legitimate debate about the ‘n’ word would require proponents to explain why this race-based insult should be off limits when others are not, and a law would make it a crime for everyone to use that word instead of the one-sided enforcement that exists now. When gay marriage has been put to a test by the voters and people can have their say via the ballot box without fear of intimidation it has failed again and again, thereby defining what the “social norm” truly is. Only when people are forced to publicly take a position - knowing that the wrath of the Left will be brought down on them - does the gay agenda make big strides.

    1. I find your thought process backwards. Laws are much closer to bullying than social standards Given the safety of incumbency, the fact that almost no third parties can win even state seats, and many states have only one viable party, and that only those who are approved by this relatively small group of party insiders even run for office, much less win, it seems laws are established by a MUCH smaller group than social standard.

      But the real difference is not who establishes the rules, in any case a highly motivated group may overwhelm a disinterested majority, be it in laws or societal standards. Yes, gay marriage was pushed by a minority that has a strong interest. The same is true of sugar tariffs and cable regulations, the laws are of so little cost or importance to most that the few who gain a massive benefit win out, even though a very small group (I would argue, social standards take more to force through than laws, as 50 lobbyists can get a law, 50 people, even famous people, are unlikely enough to force a new trend. But that is a secondary point.)

      The big difference is the cost of defiance. If I decide to say the n-word, or say gay marriage is wrong, I may be shunned, criticized, ostracized, whatever, but I still retain my rights and property. On the other hand, if I decide to violate a law, I lose my property, my freedom, even my life. That makes a tremendous difference.

      To my mind, a man should not be imprisoned, fined or killed unless he violates the rights of another. Any matter which does not violate a right is something which, whether we like it or not, does not rise to the level of a crime. Some may satisfy the requirements for a civil cause of action, provided real damage is done, but those should be relatively rare occasions. For the most part, as I keep arguing, persuasion and pressure should be our only choice, as it allows those who feel strongly to continue even if the vast majority thinks them wrong, while ensuring the vast majority follow the norms of society. (I am sure there are examples where someone's behavior seems harmful yet is not a violation of rights. I admit they exist. But I would argue that allowing a few such holes is preferable to the alternative of creating conditions where "law" becomes the catch all it is today and government gradually drifts toward omnipotence. After all, what is "big government" but government to which we give more power? So, to remedy it, the solution is to give it less.)

    2. I would also argue, most such holes (see last paragraph) are far from as harmful as most argue. However, I would point out, no government is without fault. Our current state has many problems, all states do. The question is which shortcomings you accept. And I would rather accept a small excess of freedom, leaving certain undesirable behaviors to be controlled only by social pressures, rather than create rules which justify allowing the government unlimited power, as moving beyond the protection of rights inevitably does.

      And if you doubt that, look at how far our government has gone with nothing but the general welfare/necessary and proper clause and commerce clause. Even against the explicit limits of the bill of rights and especially 10th amendment, it still managed to becomes as omnipotent. In fact, by the time of McCulloch v Maryland the principle had already been established that the general welfare clause was a catch all escape hatch from constitutional constraints. So, it not only is certain exceptions will be exploited, but they will be exploited pretty quickly, with their full implications spelled out soon after they appear.