Social Norms Need Neutrality, Simplicity

On April 4, shock jock Don Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team "nappy-headed hos," and was soon fired.  Last week the Washington Post noted:

Two weeks past its news expiration date, the debate seems to be gathering renewed strength.  .. On Monday hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who just two weeks ago was arguing for the rights of rappers to express themselves as artists, did a seeming about-face and called for the voluntary banning of "bitch," "ho" and the N-word from the lexicon as "extreme curse words." 

Monday we heard:

A panel discussion titled "Does Hip-Hop Hate Women?" drew more than 400 people indoors on a sunny day — a sign that the furor that erupted over Don Imus’ comments isn’t over yet.  As Imus struggled in vain to keep his job earlier this month, he claimed that rappers routinely "defame and demean black women" and call them "worse names than I ever did." Some speakers criticized music executives … Others … said hip-hop shouldn’t be made a scapegoat for what’s wrong in America.

James Poniewozik asked the key question on Time‘s April 12 cover: "Who Can Say What?"

A few months ago, I interviewed [Sarah] Silverman, who argued that her material was not racist but about racism (and I agree). But she added something that surprised me, coming from her: "I’m not saying ‘I can say nigger because I’m liberal.’ There is a certain aspect of that that I’m starting to get grossed out by. ‘Oh, we’re not racist. We can say it.’" …

Of course, assessing Imus’ show is a subjective judgment, and setting these boundaries is as much an aesthetic call as a moral one. It’s arbitrary, nebulous and, yes, unfair. Who doesn’t have a list of artists or leaders whose sins they rationalize: Elvis Costello for calling Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger," Eminem for peppering his lyrics with "faggot," Jesse Jackson for "Hymietown," D.W. Griffith for lionizing the Klan or T.S. Eliot for maligning Jews?

You might say that there’s no excuse and that I’m as big a hypocrite as Imus’ defenders for suggesting that there is one. Which may be true. That’s finally why "Where’s the line?" is a misleading question. There are as many lines as there are people. We draw and redraw them by constantly arguing them. This is how we avoid throwing out the brilliance of a Sacha Baron Cohen – who offends us to point out absurdities in our society, not just to make "idiot comments meant to be amusing" – with a shock jock’s dirty bathwater. It’s a draining, polarizing but necessary process.

That Post article also noted:

The question of hip-hop’s culpability in the Imus issue is one that some rap-industry figures appear reluctant to address. Label executives and radio programmers on both coasts repeatedly declined to comment for this article. …

"We can’t continue to embrace the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ mind-set. It never works. . . . We need to turn the mirror back on ourselves and see if we’re participatory in our oppression," said Asha Camille Jennings, a New York University law student who three years ago, while a student at Spelman College, organized a protest against Nelly for his negative images of black women. 

If our society is going to preserve a social norm against expressing negative racial or gender stereotypes, it just can’t be: 

White male Republicans are presumed racists, and must never say anything remotely similar.  Presumed Democrats, such as women, blacks, Jews, or those admired by a liberal media, are presumed to be neither racist nor sexist, and so can usually say something similar if it is "appropriate" irony, social commentary, or artistic expression.

To be accepted, a social norm must seem neutral to major social divisions, and to be reliably applied, it must be simple enough for most people to see clearly when it is violated.  The norm above is neither.  Hopefully we can evolve something better.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    These social norms are a battlefield – several groups have their own, simple social norms, and each tries to impose it on the whole population. From the conflict, emerges a messy overall norm. If you advocate a simple social norm, you’d probably have to choose one of the popular ones out there – you’d have to pick sides.

    And that’s a problem if a simple, long-held social norm is under attack. The first compromise to emerge from that attack will be a new norm, certainly more complicated and nuanced than the first one. Always desiring simple norms would mean always preserving current simple ones.

  • michael vassar

    It also seems to me that unclear and non-neutral social norms are used by more socially skilled political figures to attack less skilled ones. As in the Larry Summers “women in science” debacle, more skilled political manipulators can attack those less skilled but with greater formal rank or credentials by bringing discussion into the space of discourse which is safe for them but unsafe for their opponents and then using their opponents entry into unsafe territory as a point of attack.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Despite my previous post, a few ways to simplify social norms:
    1) Force a dialogue between people with different norms. Repeatedly, in public and in the media. This will hammer out a general compromise (and might be entertaining as well).
    2) Be clear on the victim. If someone is insulted by the use of the word “nigger”, find out who, how many, to what extent, and in what context. If the victim is a more nebulous “civility in public discourse”, then that doesn’t count, unless we can point to people who were offended or rendered less informed by the change. If a norm protects no victim, it has no reason to be, and if people grasp the victim properly, the details of the norms will be less arbitrary and simpler to understand.
    3) If the norm is paternalistic, bring in the people being paternalised as well (such as getting teenager’s opinions on age restrictions for movies and games – those are laws, yes, but they emerge from common social norms).
    4) Agree to disagree – insist on the “social” aspect of a norm. So that people can disagree with a norm and still abide by it, without having the urge to go out and create a new norm based on their own feelings.
    5) As a converse to 4), get people to accept that obeying the norm all the time is not what is wanted – in private situations, or with like minded friends, violating the norms should not be condemned, even if it accidentally comes out. The norm is a public, social construct, not a private one.
    6) Insist on full context for a contentious quote, or anonymity. ‘”Faggot”, said the conservative white columnist‘ or ‘”Faggot”, said the gay writer‘ just give superficial pictures of the situation, reinforcing the impression that different groups have different norms. Give the full context, or don’t report anything about who said it.

  • sa

    stuart’s 7:42 am post is a really apt summary of the racial stereotyping in the world.

  • This piece reminded me of some of Hayek’s theories. Hayek’s reasoning can be simplified as follows: knowledge requires judgement; society’s implicit rules cannot be applied without the exercise of judgement; the action of gaining knowledge must precede the creation/adaptation of rules. Social knowledge is embodied in rules.

    We can apply this theory to reality. As our judgment and knowledge leads us to realize that there is little difference between blacks and whites, societal norms adapt. For example, society may become more comfortable using the term “nigger” if people perceive themselves to be non-racist (Imus, for example).

    If we truly want to have control over the social norms that are accepted, we would have to control society’s body of knowledge, and perhaps not tolerate individualism.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    true dough,

    I don’t think just knowledge is really the issue here (or at least, not the only issue). Social norms create their own facts – why where there so few black brain surgeons in the south of the USA during the 1950’s? There is little difference between blacks and whites on a biological level, but there are differences, caused by social norms and culture.

    These differences are real. But they are malleable, and if we want them to go away, we need to act as if they aren’t there. So we need to ignore some true facts, to get to the point where we can truly say “there is little difference between blacks and whites”.

    But maybe that was Hayek’s point? That social norms should be based on scientific knowledge, not on social knowledge? Is that what is meant by “the action of gaining knowledge must precede the creation/adaptation of rules”?

  • Stuart,

    I see what you mean that norms influence facts, but social norms cannot constrain our knowledge and judgment, both of which aren’t static. I think that although there may be an endless feedback loop, today in N. America knowledge is able to create norms more strongly than norms are able to create knowledge. In a static society, there may be no change in judgment, no change in knowledge, and no change in norms.

    There is indeed a difference between blacks and whites, but the differences (as we perceive them) have narrowed as our judgment changes and we reject certain beliefs.

    With reference to your second paragraph, I agree. As I interpret Hayek, that was an aspect of his argument. If we want to control social norms, we have to take away individual thought and, by extension, individual liberties. Otherwise, social norms will forever continue to adapt, since our judgment is non-static.

    Norms are influenced by social knowledge, which is influenced by scientific knowledge; the scientific community may believe X, but X will not influence social norms until society accepts X. On that note, I wonder how the speed at which norms are accepted is dependent on i) the speed and accessibility of global communications and, ii) the rate at which scientific knowledge evolves. I see it as something like an autoregressive model, where the speed at which norms are accepted is on both sides of the equation (but it represents period t-1 on the right side).

  • Sorry, Stuart. My first paragraph is incredibly sloppy. ugh. I wish there was an edit feature.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Sorry, Stuart. My first paragraph is incredibly sloppy. ugh. I wish there was an edit feature.

    No prob. Not as if my paragraphs are exactly paragons of homeric poetry.

    However, I do have to take issue with:
    If we want to control social norms, we have to take away individual thought and, by extension, individual liberties.

    This is not automatically true. Social norms aim for the masses, not the individual. Your argument would seem to imply that it is impossible to shape norms in a western, free society. But we’ve had successful campaigns to excoriate drunk driving, bigotry, domestic violence, and a whole host of other issues. So norms can be changed even in a free society.

  • OK. You’ve helped me think clearer on this, but I still maintain some of what I previously wrote.

    If we desire to change social norms, then we must change people’s judgements first. If a campaign against drunk driving alters judgements, then – yes – this can be an example of a change in social norms without interference on liberties.

    I guess I entered a muddy area when trying to draw a distinction between individuals who are free to adjust their judgement based on their exposure to a campaign, the media, the scientific community etc, versus coerced individuals.

    But you’re right: “Social norms aim for the masses, not the individual.” So, perhaps if an individual is coerced, this could possibly be an example of social norms at work.

  • Doug S.

    The standards for obscene words have changed. The Vice President told a Senator to “Go fuck yourself” and nothing much happened. Racial slurs are the new dirty words you can’t say. Saying “nigger” is currently more likely to get you in trouble than saying any of Lenny Bruce’s famous seven dirty words. Community standards are not what they were fifty years ago.