Friday, May 25, 2018

On Norms

There are frequent references to how the Trump Presidency is characterized by "norm violations." Here is Josh Marshall arguing that the term has become a way to avoid addressing outright criminal or at least guilty-mind conduct. But what did violating norms ever mean? Here's German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in The Reality of the Mass Media on that exact topic (and, yes, we've quoted Luhmann before, in the belief that he's a genius) --

Norm violations are especially selected for reporting [by the media] when they can be accompanied by moral judgements, in other words, when they are able to offer an opportunity to demonstrate respect or disdain for people. In this regard the mass media have an important function in the maintenance and reproduction of morality. However, this should not be taken to mean that they are in a position to fix ethical principles or even just to raise society's moral standards towards good behaviour. No person or institution in modern society is able to do that - neither the Pope nor a council, neither the German parliament nor Der Spiegel. It is only wrongdoers caught in the act who demonstrate to us that such criteria are needed. It is only the code of morality which is reproduced, in other words the difference of good and bad, or evil, behaviour. The legal system is ultimately responsible for setting criteria. The mass media merely provide a constant irritation for society, a reproduction of moral sensibility at the individual as well as the communicative level. However, this leads to a kind of 'disembedding' of morality, to moralizing talk which is not covered by any verifiable obligations. The way morality is imagined and its ongoing renovation is linked to sufficiently spectacular cases - when scoundrels, victims, and heroes who have gone beyond the call of duty are presented to us. The receiver will typically align herself with none of these groups. She remains - an observer.

Now apply this insight, that the media treatment of norm violations is "moralizing talk which is not covered by any verifiable obligations" to the current political context in the USA. How did things get to the point where restraints on power were almost a play, a show, with standards that could only be verified when broken? That's quite a constitution you have there, America.

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