Self-si­lenc­ing breeds in­jus­tices, cru­elty

Saturday Star - - OPINION - CASS R SUN­STEIN

THE CON­TIN­U­ING rev­e­la­tions about Har­vey We­in­stein tell us some­thing im­por­tant about sex­ual ha­rass­ment and sex­ual vi­o­lence, and also about civil-rights move­ments and so­cial change more broadly.

In brief: Be­cause of so­cial norms, peo­ple of­ten shut up, even if they are hu­mil­i­ated, hurt or an­gry. It is only when norms start to shift that peo­ple feel free to dis­close what they have ex­pe­ri­enced, and to say what they think.

Once they are un­leashed, so­cial up­heaval can re­sult. But it is hard or even im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict whether that will hap­pen -- and what form it will take.

I learned some­thing about self­si­lenc­ing and sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the late 1980s, when I was a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Columbia Law School. In the hall­way near my of­fice, a law stu­dent (fe­male) was speak­ing to an older law pro­fes­sor (male). To my as­ton­ish­ment, the pro­fes­sor was stroking the stu­dent’s hair.

I thought I glimpsed a gri­mace on her face -- a quick flash. When he left, I said to her: “That was com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate. He shouldn’t have done that.” Her re­sponse was dis­mis­sive: “It’s fine. It’s re­ally not a prob­lem.”

Thirty min­utes later, I heard a knock on my door. It was the stu­dent. She was in tears. She said: “He does this all the time. It’s hor­ri­ble. My boyfriend thinks I should make a for­mal com­plaint, but I don’t want to do that.

Please -- I don’t want to make a fuss. Do not talk to him about it and do not tell any­one.”

Af­ter hear­ing my little com­ment, the stu­dent was will­ing to tell me what she ac­tu­ally thought. But back then, the norm against making any kind of pub­lic com­plaint was ap­par­ently pretty firm -- firm enough that she was un­will­ing to con­front her ha­rasser.

In the past decades, of course, that norm has been greatly weak­ened. In some places, at least, vic­tims have been un­leashed, in the sense that they can dis­close their ex­pe­ri­ences.

But as shown by the length of time that it took for the ac­cu­sa­tions against We­in­stein to come to light, there is still a taboo, in other places, against pub­lic com­plaints (partly for rea­sons bril­liantly ex­plored by the writer and ac­tress Brit Mar­ling).

In these cir­cum­stances, “norm en­trepreneurs” --- peo­ple who are will­ing to speak out and try to change the norm --- can be cru­cial. It helps if they’re fa­mous.

But sheer num­bers can be enough. Even­tu­ally, there can be a so­cial cas­cade, as peo­ple are in­flu­enced by the thoughts and deeds of oth­ers, so that what was once si­lence is re­placed by a loud and con­tin­u­ing cry: #MeToo.

That is what we’re ob­serv­ing for sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault, but sim­i­lar pro­cesses have oc­curred in count­less do­mains.

As late as 2007, it might have seemed pre­pos­ter­ous to pre­dict that, within a decade, nu­mer­ous states would rec­og­nize same-sex mar­riages, let alone that the Supreme Court would re­quire all states to do so.

But that hap­pened, above all, for one rea­son: Many gays and les­bians came out of the closet. When faced with one’s own son or daugh­ter --- or neigh­bors, col­leagues and he­roes --it be­came much harder to be ho­mo­pho­bic or to sup­port bans on same­sex mar­riage.

When norms shift, so that peo­ple stop si­lenc­ing them­selves, in­jus­tice and cru­elty can be ex­posed, and so­ci­eties can ad­vance.

But some­times the op­po­site can oc­cur. Self-si­lenc­ing is of­ten a prod­uct of norms that hold so­ci­eties to­gether --- and that help to pre­vent ter­ri­ble things, even hor­rors.

Changes in so­cial norms can lib­er­ate ma­lig­nant hu­man im­pulses as well.

For ex­am­ple, Adolf Hitler could be char­ac­terised as a norm en­tre­pre­neur early in his rise to power, when he helped free peo­ple to ex­press anti-Semitic sen­ti­ments and en­cour­aged them to do so.

Some con­tem­po­rary lead­ers in Europe are push­ing to loosen norms that sup­press var­i­ous for ms of racial, re­li­gious and eth­nic ha­tred.

In the US, both the Right and the Left are now feel­ing si­lenced. A re­cent report from the Cato In­sti­tute finds that 58% of Amer­i­cans be­lieve that the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate stops them from say­ing what they re­ally think. Re­veal­ingly, the num­ber is higher among Repub­li­cans (73%) than among Democrats (53% ).

In this light, it should not have sur­prised any­one that in the 2016 elec­tions, Repub­li­cans did far bet­ter than poll­sters pro­jected.

Many of those who sup­ported Repub­li­can can­di­dates, and Don­ald Trump in par­tic­u­lar, were silently sim­mer­ing.

In vot­ing booths, they could ex­press views they may have felt re­luc­tant to talk about openly.

Seen in this light, Trump’s re­peated de­nun­ci­a­tions of “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” have been an in­ge­nious strat­egy.

He is sig­nal­ing that a lot of peo­ple are be­ing pres­sured to shut up about their ac­tual be­liefs --- which, he be­lieves, of­ten over­lap with his own. He’s try­ing to re­lax ex­ist­ing norms and to give peo­ple a kind of per­mis­sion slip. To some ex­tent, he is suc­ceed­ing.

Re­gret­tably, some left-lean­ing peo­ple on col­lege cam­puses have worked to weaken norms in favour of free­dom of speech, un­leash­ing stu­dents to call for sup­pres­sion of speak­ers whose views they ab­hor. In well-func­tion­ing so­ci­eties, healthy norms pro­mote free­dom of many dif­fer­ent kinds, and they can be both pre­cious and frag­ile.

All so­cial move­ments are dif­fer­ent, of course, but changes in so­cial norms, and var­i­ous forms of un­leash­ing, help ac­count for the col­lapse of Com­mu­nism; the rise of dis­abil­ity rights; the fall of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in parts of North Africa; and the an­ti­smok­ing move­ment. They also ac­count for McCarthy­ism and the re­cent in­crease in xeno­pho­bia.

Ours is an era of un­leash­ing --- for bet­ter or worse. Buckle your seat­belts: A lot of peo­ple are in for a rocky ride.

Please -- I don’t want to make a fuss. Do not talk to him about it and do not tell any­one

Sun­stein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the au­thor of “#Repub­lic: Di­vided Democ­racy in the Age of So­cial Me­dia” and a co-au­thor of “Nudge: Im­prov­ing De­ci­sions About Health, Wealth and Hap­pi­ness.”

For more col­umns from Bloomberg View, visit com/view.

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