- - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2017 is only 10 days old and it has already seen mass murder events across the globe: in Florida and Iraq, in Israel and Turkey, in Egypt and Somalia.

I use the term “mass murder events” to avoid – for the moment – issues of intention, motivation, politics and religion. I call them mass murder events to create a space for us to look at stranger killing for what it is: cold and horrifying evil.

The proliferation of murderous attacks on groups of strangers by non-state actors has changed the civilized world. Because of our fear, we live with less freedom. Because we have adapted to the violence emotionally and morally, we have become diminished.

Because of the narrative that justifies much of the violence, we are increasingly confused and unsure of our own fundamental values. We have lost confidence in our norms.

Rule of law is the foundation of democracy, while norms are the glue that holds society together. A recent case demonstrates the difference.
When four people were arrested in the brutal beating of a special needs student in Chicago, the law charged them with multiple felony counts of kidnapping and battery. But when Cook County Circuit Judge Maria Kuriakos Ciesil asked them, “where was your sense of decency?” she was talking about a norm.
Norms are the informal common standards that are upheld without law enforcement. Norms define who we are, and engender trust. Our norms are being challenged.

Candidate Donald Trump challenged the norm of financial openness by refusing to reveal his tax returns. Perhaps his most disturbing norm-challenging statement was that he would not accept the election results unless he won. President-Elect Trump disregards the norm of expressing confidence in U.S. government intelligence, and of placing his assets in a blind trust to avoid the appearance of (and actual) conflict of interest.

Which brings us to the norm of truth, challenged by both right and left.

On the left, the academic world has allowed its commitment to free speech to be defied by students and faculty who intimidate the expression of ideas, facts or political positions with which they disagree. The erosion of this norm undermines the very idea of the university as an institution that stands for freedom of inquiry and the integrity of scholarship.

The right challenges truth by substituting emotion for reason, and embracing “truthiness” and “post-truth politics.”

Of course it’s not always wrong to challenge a social norm. Sometimes a society has unstated norms that are out of line with its fundamental values. Back in the 1980s, businessman Trump confronted the male-only assumption then current in the construction business when he hired a woman to be vice president of his company in charge of the Trump Tower construction. That was a norm that needed to be challenged.

Can a society exist without norms? Can a democracy?

Norms that build bonds of social trust, and serve as support for our democracy, need and deserve respect from the top. Absent that, we will continue to see evidence of decline, such as the widespread belief in conspiracy theories and fake news. We may also expect to see weaker attachment to freedom of speech and popular sovereignty, which are already showing up in survey research results in many Western countries, particularly among the young.

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