Norms, in a society or culture, are the accepted ways of behavior we grow up observing and learning in our everyday lives. Norms are rarely backed up by laws, though when norms are grossly violated, calls for legislation may ensue.
In our country, voluntarily recognized fundamental norms have been breaking down. The chief impetus for this collapse is the ascending supremacy of commercial power over civic values. The surrender of the latter to the former in sector after sector has spelled the decline of our country as measured by its own promise and pretensions. Compared to seventy years ago, there are almost no commercial-free zones anymore. Almost everything is for sale – or should be in the minds of dogmatic free market fundamentalists and its apologists like Milton Friedman and his disciples.
Let’s be specific. When I was a schoolboy in the nineteen forties, the top CEOs of the Fortune 300 largest companies kept their pay at about 12 times the salary of the average worker in their business. If any CEO had sought to increase that ratio to 50 or 300 times, he would be roundly condemned from the pulpits to the boards of directors, to civic and charitable groups. In those days, CEOs also did not want to arouse the anger of their industrial labor unions or encourage workers to demand more pay in response.
Now CEOs of major companies pay themselves, via a rubber stamp board of directors, 300 or more times the average worker’s salary. Some are more extreme, such as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, whose pay package this year comes down to $833 a MINUTE on a 40-hour week. Hardly a squeak of objection is heard from anyone. Hey, you didn’t know? Grab whatever you can get is the mantra of greedy CEOs. Absent any laws on maximum income, scratch one norm for tossing modest pay equity out the window (See, The Case for a Maximum Wage by Sam Pizzigati, 2018).
By contrast, it used to be an unchallenged norm to pay women less for doing the same work as men. No more. In 1963 the Federal Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay women lower wages than men.
It used to be against strict social norms for companies to sell directly to children, bypassing their parents to exploit youngsters’ vulnerabilities. For one, little kids cannot distinguish between ads and programming. Now commercial marketing directly to children – junk food and drink, toxic medicines and cosmetics, harmful toys, violent entertainment videos and more – is a business approaching a half trillion dollars a year. The iPhone doubles down as a gateway to this electronic child molestation.
The blasphemy of yesterday has become commonplace today.
Gambling used to evoke strong moral condemnation, thereby driving it underground to the back of newsstand stores, often called the “numbers racket.” Now gambling is at your fingertips via your computer. State governments run lotteries. Business is moving big time into sports gambling. Casinos are everywhere.
The norms against gambling were promoted by organized religion. When the churches started allowing big bingo in their basements, the defenses against above ground, organized gambling (apart from Las Vegas) began to crumble. The gambling boosters claimed it would produce tax revenue and help the elderly. This deception was part of the pitch by the builders of the first casinos in Atlantic City, NJ. Now gambling casinos are described as economic development engines, however fraudulent that assertion is seen by economists.
Far from age-old stigmas, a failed gambling czar was selected (by the Electoral College) as U.S. president in 2016. He broke more norms and laws daily than all previous presidents, and until recently has gotten away with these violations.
College sports stars have started selling their likenesses and other emblems – something that for years was verboten and cause for expulsion.
Historically, there have been cruel norms beyond avarice. Some were ensconced into law – such as legalized slavery before the Civil War.
Child labor in dungeon-like factories was not only legal, it was accepted as a norm. It has been illegal for almost a century since the law memorialized the new norm that youngsters should be going to schools instead of going to sweatshops.
It’s good to think about norms – big and small – as yardsticks of what kind of society we want. Not doing so, over time, can result in deeply recognized norms such as protecting the personal privacies of the young and old, smashed to smithereens by Facebook, Instagram and other Internet barons who make huge profits by getting, for free, their customers’ detailed personal information every day, which is then sold to advertisers.
Because of the unbridled political power of corporatism and other lawless forces, the rule of law cannot begin to catch up with protecting good norms or replacing cruel norms. This challenge first rests on ourselves, on our reinvigorating civic and educational institutions, on our bar associations, our faith groups and on each family circle.
That is why it is so important for active citizens who strive to get, for example, health, safety and economic protection standards made into law by petitions, lawsuits, marches, writings or lobbying not to despair when they so often lose these battles. For even if they do not prevail, they are keeping alive the public, decent, respectful underlying norms of our society that can be advanced and ultimately provided with legal protections.
You must have some crucial norms you see being fractured or weakened. Speak up about them, otherwise you’ll find them going, going, gone. It is time to reverse the lowering of expectations by people. Even big historic norms are under systemic assault, like the vendors’ drive to reject cash/check for payments by the incarcerating credit card, payment system Gulag. Or the Trump GOP’s massive lies about voter fraud in order for dangerous Republican extremists to enact legislation to obstruct voting and honest vote counting.