An encouraging article by Maria Konnikova for the New Yorker, How Norms Change, gives me hope that the bizarre behaviour of Donald Trump does not need to become a new normal for America.
Konnikova looks at the difference between biases originating from deeply held beliefs, and social norms which are the ways in which we behave in a society. She points out that while a bias is slow to change, social norms can change at whatever rate a society is changing. Norms can also be strongly influenced by leaders.
The fact that a powerful leader can change social norms is worrying when we see someone like Donald Trump. However, a powerful leader who is somewhat removed from your everyday life has less influence on your behaviour than someone you interact with more often:
If the President suggests that some neo-Nazis are “very fine people,” but those in positions of power closer to you—such as a pastor, principal, or governor—speak out against him, you’ll be more likely to call into question the new normal that the President has modelled. The new behavior will look more like an outlier than like a norm. Maria Konnikova
If leaders in a society consistently resist and speak out against a degenerating social norm, there is hope that society can remain a good place to be. This has implications far beyond opposing the madness of Trump, it places responsibility on all of us to lead with respectful behaviour in whatever sphere of influence we have, whether it is large or small we have the advantage of regular interactions with the people in our lives.
The beauty of norms is that, unlike ingrained hatreds, they are flexible. They shift quickly; with the right pressure from the right people, they can shift back. But the response, crucially, must be broad, and it must come from sources of authority across the political spectrum. Otherwise, behaviors we think of as socially stable may prove to be far more fragile than we’d like to believe. Maria Konnikova