On the mantel at our fireplace a long board with the words “Because Nice Matters” leans up against the wall. Several Christmas and birthday cards mostly hide it now, but I know it is there, and I know it is important to both Diane and me. She has owned it for years. Diane thinks of niceness in terms of personal interaction, which should be conducted with sensitivity, kindness. Of course, that is important and she is often nicer in person-to-person interaction than I am. I’ve required a lot of training. But for me, niceness compasses more. I have always been oriented toward political and cultural matters. So I say, in society, honesty is nice and dishonesty is not. Fairness is nice and unfairness is not. Refraining from violence is nice and violence is not.
For the last seven years I have been trying to find more than just a couple simple expressions to argue that what is most the matter with the Trump era –and its antecedents and its post-Trump carryings-on–is the assault on norms of decency and the change in tolerance for, even celebration of, norms of incivility. I know–“decency” and “civility” are such beige terms. The import does not come across. Norms are expectations of behavior, especially verbal and physical behavior in public life, whether one has a loud megaphone or one does not, but does have a mouth or a gun. I haven’t been able to develop much of an argument past a plain assertion, although I have come to believe the main point more strongly through living these past few yeas.
Decency matters, matters more than any policy, although I think policies and their use matter a great deal. But laws can be changed, and are, and even Supreme Court decisions get reversed. We have a harder time collectively changing basic notions of what is OK, partly because norms are not always legally encoded, let alone enforced by having any consequence except shunning. And shaming has lost power recently. In fact, acting as a finger in the eye of the rules of civility gets points in some fighting corners. Maybe it is hardest to change norms in the direction of honoring the rights of Others, those who are not one of one’s racial, economic, or religious, or ideological tribe. America has done a lot of that since the sixties. And maybe abandoning those norms that have been solidified just in living memory in such a direction (that is, toward honoring Others) is not as hard as establishing them. A change in norms toward tolerance of dishonesty, unfairness, and violence began before Trump’s presidency, but his reign was brought about by valorizing that change (that is, toward unfairness, etc.) and continually reinforcing it — Trump loves to double down. We’ve seen a lot of contention in the last 60 years.
The destruction of the old norms of decency and the substitution of the norms of simple license for the powerful to get their own way has been championed by Trump for much of the last few years, although he did not begin it and his imitators are continuing it. The mind set for the task requires amorality, and from that, shamelessness, and from that, imperviousness to censure. The common tactic is to double down on every challenged lie, in part to assert the effectiveness of such brazen behavior in self.
Lies re not nice. The Washington Post’s tracking project noted more than 30,000 of them from the mouth or tweeting finger of Trump during his presidency. Until October, 2020, the volume got too much to keep up with. The lie with the greatest consequences is the Big Lie, which still lives and causes trouble, that the presidential election was stolen. By election day in 2020 a big tribe of believers had been established, who still accept any absurdity, will make any denial in the face of shown facts, including video existence, and re nurtured by the MAGA identity.
Hate and fear mongering are not nice, not only because they are dangerous motivators, but also because they are unfair. The last seven years of norm destruction and remaking have been times of racist, sexist, antisemitic, transphobic hate speech and attempts at fear-driven policies like the Muslim immigration ban. In addition, the MAGA right is creating or at least further stereotyping more targets, such as well-sourced media, Hollywood, coastal urbans and elites, and now, even law enforcement, the FBI and the “woke” military for support of trans personnel. Why all this animosity? What does it accomplish? Cruelty is the point, Adam Serwer writes in the Atlantic. Cruelty not only hurts, it discourages both the target and other observers, or is meant to. It assaults the old norms of decency in order to change expectations of compliance with them. Cruelty always includes the message that you cannot win, you cannot expect justice. You must put up with unfairness. You are a loser.
Violence is not nice, and its celebration is an abomination. “Trial by combat” Giuliani called for at the rally on January 6, 2021, and off the crowd went. Trump has encouraged violence as far back as his first campaign in 2016, suggesting that his followers beat up protesters at one of his events. Acts of public square violence, as well as intimidation through threats and a general atmosphere of danger, are becoming ordinary in our daily civic lives. Violence has become more common in public contests, including struggles about voting rights and abortion rights. A gang of militants plots the kidnapping of the governor of Michigan, losing candidate in Arizona gets hired guns to shoot into the homes of political opponents, and lets us know that his model for his own election denial is, of course, Trump.
Norms hold us together. In 2017, early in Trump’s regime, I noticed that I could not keep up mental hold of the Trump-related incidents that shocked and appalled me, ones that alarmingly suggested changes in norms. Each one was replaced within days or a week or so by by some new outrage. Even the big ones, like Trump’s call to Ukraine’s President Kelensky (trying to extort dirt on the Biden family by threatening to withhold already pledged defensive support), came to nothing but a failed impeachment, after which the man carried on bald-faced. There were just too many affronts to decency to keep up with emotionally, so mindfulness of them faded. There was and still is an inundation from the reactionary side of things; we sink into the flood of it. It is like an atmospheric river that the weather has been producing in California–ubiquitous and drowning. That is how it works. Through the deluge of changed behavior and its drenching, insisted-on- normalcy, there has been a change to the normal, and the normal becomes normative; the rules of civility, the norms themselves, are replaced.
I’ve become aware these last two years that it is not formally codified, law-enforced rules, that are the most important rules, but the international regularities that, if not complied with, get our attention and corrective action, like a rule against racial slurs or a boast about grabbing pussy. (And, of course, formal laws, too, depend on cooperation; subpoenas are ignored now, and authorities can’t or at least don’t force compliance.) But attention and corrective action for non-compliance with informal norms depend on the force of disapproval, not of guns, courts or jails. If the old norms of decency, of niceness, are not subjected to corrective action, or the action has no punch, and new expectations take the place of old just by getting away with it, the rules have, effectively, changed. This frightens me. For the first time ever, I would be hesitant to speak up sharply and publicly against militia thuggery or for law changes in the state to restore full reproductive rights, for fear of assault against my home, especially since I am not alone; my wife would be in danger. I am not saying I would not do it–but for the first time I am apprehensive, concerning my own home, my northern, middle-class home.
More than half a lifetime ago I spent time where there was reason to fear for the safety of the place where I slept at night, the place that was my temporary home, during the civil rights movement, when I was doing voter registration work down south. But I was young and therefore felt immortal, or at least heroic, impassioned; and we had rousing songs and each other. That was then, this is now.
It’s different. For one thing, I’m now a 77-year old body. The flesh intuitions are different and more self-protective. But, too, the times are different. I have accumulated years, but so has the world, our world, our country. In the 1960’s racial violence was a reality, but the trajectory of unfolding events and changes in discourse seemed strongly against it continuing without consequence. We could believe Dr. King that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” Politics promised progressiveness, stretching as far as I could imagine. Well, I was barely 20, so with very little life experience. Now I have lived through the rise and effect of modern feminism, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, the two-term presidency of Barack Hussein Obama and and a legal marriage with my wife Diane, on the one hand; but the neocon politics of Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, and the rise of white nationalist, Christian nationalist and anti-intellectual, hate-nourished culture that allowed for a Donald Trump to lie and hustle his way into the White House, on the other. Books and articles inform me that authoritarianism is on the rise in many places, and our country is one of them–and I can see it’s so. Trump even suggested not bothering with the Constitution. Tens of thousands of Americans engaged in insurrection. They attempted a coup. The arc does not seem to be bending toward justice. Or even toward a bit of good sense. Certainly not toward civility, decency. Not toward niceness in the civic sphere.
This morning I was watching a movie on Amazon set partly in the civil rights monument of the 1960’s. The dangers of that time seem to me too much like the threats today; or the threats of today seem too much like the dangers of the 1960s. Do we really want to fight the same battles, or ones that rhyme so well, as Mark Twain said about history? News of violence against politicians, election workers, women, jews, children in school comes almost daily. The possibility of violence seems quite close. The lies continue. Law changes and court decisions undo hard-won fairness. It is all normal. It has become normalized. I am alarmed.
Used with permission of Birch Moonwoman