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#MeToo and the trouble with new norms

For new norms to gain power, they require conformity. Debates about the appropriateness of new norms, however, require discord.

People participate in a #MeToo march in Los Angeles in November. (Reuters)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been trying to process the evolving debate over ongoing debates about where we are in the debates about sexual harassment. The stories that have come from the #MeToo online movement have been disturbing, even in my own foreign policy bailiwick. At the same time, the Aziz Ansari story, the blowback from that story, the SNL skit about the Aziz Ansari story and the more concerted pushback from Katie Roiphe and Andrew Sullivan have prompted questions about whether things have gone too far.

At the risk of angering everyone, I have concluded that the basic problem with this debate is that one side thinks this about the construction of new norms regarding sexual harassment, while the other side thinks this is about the preservation of existing norms of debate in a liberal society. And the problem is that they are both right.

New norms are not easy to create, but they can emerge over time, even in the international realm. A truly successful norm is one that has become so ingrained that it does not occur to anyone that there was a time when this norm was not, um, normal.

One model posits the general life cycle of norm creation into three stages: its emergence by norm entrepreneurs, a “norm cascade” that leads to widespread acceptance and then the internalization of norms by actors. There are multiple microprocesses through which norms can spread, but for them to matter, they require conformity. Indeed, one can argue that conformity is defined as the adherence to powerful social norms.

For a new norm to be created, and for it to diffuse widely, entrepreneurs need to take action to promote conformity. This can be done through purely rhetoric moves, but that’s only one of myriad mechanisms, which can include legal sanctions, naming and shaming exercises and the like.

The existence of social media can accelerate the norm life cycle process. These technologies allow for a rapid diffusion of new norms. If they catch on, or if they are embraced by those with some network power, then a cascade can happen much more quickly now than, say, 50 years ago. We live in an era when the New York Times can hire and fire a new columnist in less than 12 hours because of social media activism.

While a lot of groundwork was laid prior to 2017, it seems undeniable that the #MeToo movement has shifted the norms surrounding sexual harassment in high-profile workplaces in short order. This shift comprises a few different moves:

  • Actions that do not rise to the level of sexual assault constitute a threat in the workplace;
  • If someone accuses a more powerful person of sexual harassment, the reaction should not be “he said/she said” but rather a presumption that the accuser is likely telling the truth, because the risks of going public are great.

For new norms to gain power, they require conformity. Debates about the appropriateness of new norms, however, require discord. And the speed with which these new norms are trying to be created are roiling those who emphasize other procedural norms. Sullivan, for example, has serious issues with the more expansive boundaries of sexist behavior that are being demarcated in 2018. In a follow-up column, he also used the language of norms to describe what was going on:

I’m not talking about formal rules — but norms of liberal behavior. One of them is a robust public debate, free from intimidation. Liberals welcome dissent because it’s our surest way to avoid error. Cultural Marxists fear dissent because they believe it can do harm to others’ feelings and help sustain existing identity-based power structures. Yes, this is not about the First Amendment. The government is not preventing anyone from speaking. But it is about the spirit of the First Amendment. One of the reasons I defended Katie Roiphe against a campaign to preemptively suppress an essay of hers (even to the point of attempting to sabotage an entire issue of Harper’s) is because of this spirit. She may be wrong, but that does not make her a hobgoblin whose career needs to be ended. And the impulse to intimidate, vilify, ruin, and abuse a writer for her opinions chills open debate.

Roiphe’s article quotes a lot of examples of “extremes of vitriol” from Twitter, which led to an interesting exchange when Slate’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Roiphe:

CHOTINER: People hurling abuse to you on Twitter are no better than Trump supporters screaming, “lock her up.” The reason I am less worried about the former is that they don’t have the power of a crazy person as president behind them …
ROIPHE: You are saying they don’t have power, but I think they do have power. I guess that is what I am trying to point out in my piece.
CHOTINER: I think that is the crux of our disagreement.

I initially rolled my eyes at the comparison between feminists on Twitter and the commander in chief. If norms are trying to be fostered, however, then Roiphe is not completely wrong in her assertion. Clearly Twitter mobs do have power, albeit not the same power as, say, the president of the United States.

Sullivan and Roiphe are professional contrarians, so it is not surprising that they will resist any drive for conformity. But I suspect that their real objection is not the creation of new norms — same-sex marriage is not a widely accepted idea in this century without Sullivan’s writings in the last century. Rather, their objection might be with the rapidity of change and the process by which this country is getting there.

I wish I had a grand synthesis that could reconcile these views. To be honest I don’t think there is as much disagreement about the boundaries of good behavior as one might think. Sullivan blames the parlous state of public debate on polarization. That’s a factor, but I strongly suspect that this is also about the pace of change.

In the 21st century, this kind of change is not going to slow down. And there will be a lot of shouting along the way.