The Trump administration and defining down the acceptable

There is a sociological concept, succinctly described in a 1993 essay for the American Scholar by Daniel Patrick Moynihan entitled “Defining Deviancy Down,” that the level of perceived crime, or anything considered unacceptable, is constant over time, regardless of whether the true level of crime increases or decreases. In other words, a society of saints and a society of thieves will have the same proportion of criminals, but the society of saints will consider things we consider small or petty deviances a “crime,” whereas in a society of thieves only things we consider extremely egregious would be considered a “crime.”

Defining down the acceptable works in several ways, but I think three mechanisms (which are slightly different than Moynihan’s) are worth highlighting. The first mechanism is normalizing unacceptable behavior by desensitizing society. As Trump continues to do one outrageous thing after another, a presidency less than a fortnight old feels like it has been going on for years, and the despotism and chaos begin to seem like business as usual. After essentially banning Muslims, repealing the Affordable Care Act, nailing the coffin shut on the TPP, the nepotism and corruption, having the most white and mail cabinet since Reagan, or even a white supremacist as his closest advisor seem like an acceptable “new normal.”

This leads to the second mechanism: wearing society down. There is a finite quantity of outrage society can express, and eventually the unacceptable is just overwhelming. Where do you start to focus your energies? Women’s rights? Immigrants’ rights? The environment? Corruption? And as Trump’s barrage of executive orders and policies continue out of the floodgates, the list only grows longer, and society is forced to choose “the worst” offense to express their outrage in a sea of unacceptable offenses.  This has the effect of minimizing the unacceptability of the other offenses, hence giving them a perceived veneer of acceptability.

The final mechanism is what I think of as bargaining. Someone once told me a story of how he was in a market in Morocco, and a child started following him around trying to sell him a vase for $100.  He did not want the vase and kept declining, but the child kept lowering the price. Eventually he paid the child $1 for the vase to make the child go away. In other words, he paid more than he would have otherwise for an unwanted vase. Trump employs the same tactics.  Calling for a 20% import tax on Mexican goods that then gets walked back to a suggested 5-20% import tax as part of a buffet of options makes a 5% import tax seem less awful, even though a tax of any magnitude has the same negative effects.

The struggle for the anti-Trump movement is to resist the inevitability of defining down the acceptable as much as possible. This is possible by considering Trump’s new normal as an unacceptable normal; by acknowledging that everyone will focus their finite supply of outrage on a specific unacceptable offense, but that should not detract from the worthiness of spending outrage on a different unacceptable offense; and to fight the urge to bargain: if a priori something is deemed unacceptable, and then the starting point for negotiation is even more unacceptable, does not make the a priori determination less any less valid. Buckle up for a rough four years.



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