The sickening, embarrassing, creepy sight of Trump’s Cabinet delivering, one after another, fulsome words of praise for their Glorious Leader has inspired me to say something about the norms of civilized behavior on which every society relies for its quotidian functioning. I anticipate that my attempt will elicit heated comments about the widespread immoral acts of ostensibly respectable public, corporate, and other governmental figures, comments that, though well-intentioned, and with the content of which I quite agree, will distract readers from the point I am trying to make. In an effort to postpone those reactions, I shall begin by talking about a social realm with which most of the readers of this blog are familiar – the American university or college.
Those of us who spend our work lives in higher education very quickly become aware of the existence of certain norms of expected performance, and most of us, I venture to speculate, actually try to conform our own behavior to them. Let me mention just three: First, we try to offer in our classes thoughtful, intelligent, and informed lectures or discussions that arguably concern the ostensible subject of the course; Second, much as we may hate it, we actually read the papers and exams that our students write and try to offer useful comments and criticisms of student work; and Third, if grades are called for, we do not simply assign them randomly, but try to fit the grade to the student performance in some predictable and impartial manner.
We are, of course, all well aware of colleagues who regularly violate one or another of these norms – colleagues who do no more than glance at papers before slapping grades on them haphazardly; colleagues who hand papers or exams back with not a comment or correction on them, just a bare grade; colleagues who do little or nothing to meet the legitimate expectation that their lectures will present in an orderly fashion material facially related to the announced subject of the course. Let me give you one particularly egregious example, from South Africa, not America. During several of the twenty-five years that I ran a scholarship organization for poor Black South African university students, I brought some of the money I had raised to Cape Technikon, an originally all-White Africans-speaking institution that had under the new post-Apartheid regime become integrated. During one of my visits, some of my scholarship recipients took me aside to tell me of a problem they were having. The lectures were supposed to be in English, which would be equally comprehensible to the Afrikaner students and to the Khosa and Zulu students. But quite often, in a class, an Afrikaner student would ask a question in Afrikaans, and the lecturer [one of the hold-overs from before integration] would reply in Afrikaans and then proceed to give the rest of the lecture in Afrikaans, leaving the Black students mystified [save for the mixed race or Coloured students for whom Afrikaans was in fact their first language.]
Now, if you know anything about the way a university actually functions, you will recognize that in practice there is almost no realistic way to enforce the norms I mentioned. In particularly egregious cases, an “intervention” might be attempted, with a professor’s senior colleagues taking him or her aside and quietly, tactfully suggesting some changes. But it would be impossible to run a university in which every act by every professor were monitored, overseen, and disciplined. If the university cannot count on the general run of professors to abide voluntarily by the norms of the Academy, reserving its minatory oversight for the rare outliers, the institution will simply collapse. It will become Trump University.
Now, the norms of which I am writing are not universal, nor can they be deduced a priori from the concept of education-as-such. They are social norms, variable from age to age and from society to society. They are not so much taught as absorbed by those being socialized into a profession. And higher education is of course not at all unique in exhibiting such norms of expected functioning. The Military has its norms, as does the Church. And yes, difficult thought it may be to believe, even the Corporation in a capitalist society has internal norms of expected behavior. And so too do the institutions of representative government.
All of these norms are violated some of the time, and – a point of the greatest importance – some institutions, such as the Corporation, may be inherently immoral or unjust, so that even those conforming meticulously to its norms can be rightly condemned. But in understanding even unjust institutions, it is useful to identify its internal norms and distinguish those who are constraining their behavior by them from those who are violating them.
Which brings me back to Trump. What makes trump uniquely dangerous is that he is flagrantly violating all of the norms of political behavior to which the rest of the political class give lip service, and to which a good many of that class actually make some effort to conform their behavior. [This is the point at which I expect readers to explode with outraged laundry lists of all the ways in which mainstream politicians violate those norms. I am well aware of all of that, I would really like it of readers could contain themselves long enough to try to engage with what I am trying to say, but that is probably a forlorn hope.]
Perhaps it is worth pointing out that even in a socialist society, no instance of which has yet existed, there would be social norms on which the successful functioning of the society depended and there would of course be individuals who violated them. A revolution would not alter that fact, even though it would most certainly alter the structure of society and with that the character of the accepted norms.
American society is bad enough. American society absent these norms of publicly acceptable behavior would be even more of a nightmare.