When Norms Die

Easter is not my holiday, but I recognize its importance to Christians and respect their right to celebrate it in peace and with dignity. But then, others disagree.

This is exactly where they should be protesting and the exact time. Don’t let these people know peace. Keep your foot on their necks https://t.co/ASrkgx11JB

— Erica Ifill (@wickdchiq) March 31, 2024

Whether it’s closing highways, seizing the college chancellor’s office or cutting up a painting, there is a common theme throughout these actions: Their conception of morality is more important than yours, than anyone else’s, and they are, at least in their mushy minds, the righteous. That means doing anything, doing any disruption, doing any harm, is not merely justified, but the epitome of morality. These are the people who tell themselves they are on the right side of history, as if history gives a damn what they say, which means that whatever they do, it must be the good and moral thing.

Essentially, wrapping oneself in shallow platitudes of virtue empowers them to ignore all other norms of human behavior. To argue that they aren’t the paragons of virtue is to invite a pointless response comparing their view of righteousness. How can we compare the destruction of a masterwork with the deaths of Gazan children, they will shriek. What the painting has to do with Gaza isn’t acknowledged as a real point. Anything that forces normies to confront their outrage is fair game, and we just don’t get it.

2/4 Activists rose to sing “Dona Nobis Pacem” (grant us peace in Latin), to echo the words of Christ, “blessed are the peacemakers.” However, security slammed the activists to the ground, cathedral refuse to pause the service, continuing to stay silent on the humanitarian crisis pic.twitter.com/ejmeGrZ7KP

— Extinction Rebellion NYC (@XR_NYC) March 31, 2024

To the activists, there is a humanitarian crisis, and what can’t be explained is why they couldn’t just pause Easter services to elevate their cause above whatever it is they do in that cathedral. After all, aren’t they more righteous, more important, the center of everyone’s universe because they have decided for themselves that their cause matters more than anything?

We are witnessing the demise of norms, lines beyond which “decent” people will not go. We see it in politics, where Trump is disinhibited from anything remotely resembling acceptable behavior, We see it on the streets, where the unduly passionate are certain that whatever they do is for a higher purpose, and god history will vindicate their offensive behavior.

Norms allow us to co-exist. Norms allow us to go about our day without fear that some random nutjob will wreak havoc on our life for whatever purpose they deem more important than our being left alone. But those are the old norms that allowed us to live and let live, to do onto others as we would have them do unto us. Those aren’t the new norms, where we use the words they tell us to use and support the side they tell us to support, and are complicit in awfulness if we don’t do as we’re told.

To point out that this is unsustainable is too obvious to need to be said, and yet we don’t seem to have a way to convey to the activists that they are not the righteous, but the offensive crazies. To tell them is pointless. They are absolutely certain they are right and we are wrong, that their purpose is so much more moral, more existential, that no argument, no reasoning, nothing, can dissuade them from their cause.

There were only a handful of activists disrupting the Easter service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but it only takes a handful to spoil the service. There are usually only a pair of activists in a museum throwing soup on a painting, but that’s enough to make it happen. When we talk about the tyranny of the minority, this is part of what we’re talking about. The few willing to behave in outrageous ways, secure in the certainty of their righteousness, will cause misery to the many who abide the norms of decent behavior.

The normies cannot win the battle against the activists because they are constrained by norms. No one in the audience at the Easter service will leap up and beat the daylights out of these disrupters because that would be wrong and uncalled for, and so the activists can disrupt with relative impunity. The normies are put to the test in their cars as activists block highways, tempting fate with their illegal conduct to see whether they can compel the normies to be violent. If it happens, it may cost a few lives or limbs, a price the righteous are willing to pay to prove that the normies are really the evil ones and they deserve their mantle of righteousness.

This situation cannot continue, and yet without norms, there is no way to prevent it from continuing.

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