When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg popped off about Donald Trump recently, she did not break any laws. And she did not break any rules. And yet, everyone, from the New York Times editorial page on up declared that she had made a grave error. She had violated a custom.
Keep in mind, RBG is one of the most reliable liberal votes on the Supreme Court. The fact has made her a hero to the left. Also, keep in mind that she was a close friend of Antonin Scalia, so she must surely be a fine human being.
But, in her public declamations against Trump, she had, as Jonathan Chait argues in New York Magazine, violated a norm. Chait explains correctly that a norm is not the same as a rule or a law.
Rules are not always clear, but they are defined by some kind of concrete line and attached to some sort of enforcement mechanism. Norms work differently. They are a shared ethic that rule out certain kinds of behavior on ethical grounds. When they are broken, it is not all at once, but step by step, in a series of incremental, leapfrogging violations by the opposing sides. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s intervention into the presidential campaign follows this pattern. It is not the first or last violation of a norm, but it is a crucial marker of our political institutions’ progress (or regress) toward complete polarization.
Norms are the glue that holds society together. Among those that you know well are table manners, queuing up, waiting your turn, returning text messages, using good grammar, offering proper greetings and so on. To be less circumspect, the use of pronouns in our language, especially those that denote gender, has been determined by custom. Nowadays, as it happens, the night riders of the thought police have decided that it’s all bigotry and that all such norms need to be systematically violated.
This means that our country is in serious trouble.
We are watching what happens when a society loses its norms. It descends to a condition where, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, human life will become: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
In RBG’s case, the norm says that Supreme Court Justices keep their noses out of politics. They are, or are supposed to be, above the fray. Of course, one might question whether RBG ever keeps politics out of her decisions, and thus, whether she was just exposing her judicial principles.
Chait explains his idea:
The norm in this case is the principle that Supreme Court justices should maintain some distance from partisan politics. Judges in lower courts are actually bound by formal rules prohibiting them from politics. Supreme Court justices are bound by mere custom. And if you consider the norm completely unimportant, and would feel perfectly comfortable with Supreme Court justices roaming convention floors decked out in elephant or donkey gear, barnstorming the country with their preferred candidates, urging their election in 30-second ads, then Ginsburg has merely brought your ideal closer to fruition. If you place some value on the Judicial branch maintaining its formal independence from electoral politics, she has done serious damage.
One might churlishly suggest that it’s not the first time her votes have done damage, but that is not the most important point. The most important point is that custom and tradition dictate what do and do not constitute good manners. And that the failure to respect them and to practice them in one’s dealings, especially in one’s public and interpersonal dealings, has a deleterious effect on the social fabric.
Long time readers of this blog and of my most recent book, The Last Psychoanalyst, know that I have emphasized the importance of a psychosocial concept called “anomie.” I recommend it in place of all of the psychosexual and even cognitive theories that are floating through the psychosphere. I discussed it yesterday in my post about The Perils of Polly.
The concept of anomie was invented by a French sociologist named Emile Durkheim. The term means: normlessness. With it he was describing both the problems that a society faces when behavioral norms break down and the problems an individual will face when he finds himself in a community whose customs differ significantly from those he learned in his birth community.
The Ginsberg example-- and she was surely not the only one to defy decorum and propriety and good manners-- shows that norms often break down because society’s leaders, the people who we all take as role models, do not respect them. I will not name the other political leaders who fail to respect norms, because you know them already.
Those who are conversant in psychobabble will be thinking to themselves that sometimes we feel so strongly about something that we just have to blurt it out… damn the consequences. As I have often noted, that form of individualism, a form that places the individual’s supposed psychic well-being above the interests of the community, leads to social oblivion, greater solitude, and more psychodrama.