The fragility of social mores
Some years ago, I read a book about race in America. The central protagonist described how he, as a black child in the 1950s, sat in a chair at school while a teacher racially berated him. In the moment, both he and his teacher were seemingly aware of the invisible social force that allowed it. Both parties knew instinctively that the system backed the teacher.
As irony would have it, 12 years later, that same author walked into his vice chancellor’s house as a University student, read out a list of demands for black activists, and extinguished his cigarette on the vice chancellor’s carpet.
In 12 short years, the invisible rulebook had inverted: the fabric that once allowed a teacher to mistreat a student, permitted the student to mistreat the teacher.
The story illustrated three uncomfortable truths:
1. We form much of our notion of what is “good” and “bad” from other people
The author and his teacher both perceived a moral consensus of the surrounding society, real or imagined. It was this imagined consensus, present in both their minds, that underpinned the actions that took place.
I‘ve seen this first hand in myself. I grew up in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, where it was socially acceptable to drink and drive. Young and old did it.
When I moved to Europe, however, I soon adopted the beliefs of my new country. Such was my transformation that, on one particular day, I read about a famous footballer who’d been fined for driving over the legal alcohol limit. I felt instantaneous disgust. And then I was taken aback by my own reaction: What had the footballer done so different to what I’d done only a few months earlier? I quickly realised that my sense of disgust was rooted not in the footballer behaving immorally, but in him transgressing a social code. Indeed, what I perceived to be morality was itself the product of what I, in turn, perceived the public consensus to be.
I’ve seen the same in reverse too: pious law abiding Swedes arriving in Zimbabwe, only to be crashing drunk into ditches within three months of their arrival.
2. The consensus that we take as obvious may exist only in our own minds.
In the example of the author and the teacher, it didn’t matter whether people in their own private homes would condone what happened in practice. What mattered was only that both parties in the room, and in the moment, believed that power lay in a particular place.
Totalitarian states understand this instinctively, which is why they ensure that propaganda penetrates every crevice of society. Such governments must continually convince people, who are all too aware that the emperor has no clothes, that they’re alone in their observation.
3. The apparent consensus is often fragile
The world that the author found himself in during the 1960s was tangentially different to the world of the 1950s. In that decade social mores were explosively inverted, centuries-old traditions were abandoned, and family structures, notions of patriotism, and gender roles were realigned.
I have asked several people of the 1950s era whether there was any inkling, at the time, of the change that was to come. All but one admitted to surprise and bewilderment as to what transpired. Each was struck dumb when asked to explain what had driven it.
Why Inclusive Wealth Index is a better measure of societal progress than GDP? | Data Driven…
You don't need to be an economic wizard or finance guru to know the definition of GDP. Even if you never took the ECON…
In the author’s story, there is a lesson: The in-group consensus can change, and it can change fast. Ideas that seem self-evident and universal in one era can rapidly become signs of dangerous transgression, radicalism, and even madness, in another.
Since nobody is aware of the thermodynamic average of peoples’ sentiments across society, totalitarian-minded gatekeepers often punish those who transgress what is, in truth, a manufactured and imagined consensus. In such a scenario, small changes to the number of key influencers can produce sudden swings in perceived orthodoxy.
The election of Trump shows that the usual gatekeepers: the New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and other purveyors of imagined consensus, are at odds with national sentiment on many issues. What is said in public in the USA, versus what is done in private at the voting booth, shows this clearly.
The entry of Coronavirus could rapidly act on these existing fault lines in ways that I will come to.
Disease and society
Few people are aware of just how disease (or its absence) shapes our lives. Sexual freedoms, for example, that we’ve enjoyed since the 1960s, owe as much to antibiotics as they do to birth control. It’s no coincidence that antibiotics, mass-produced for the first time in the mid-1940s, came some years before sexual emancipation. Gonorrhoea, formerly a debilitating life curse, became easily treatable, as did Chlamydia, Trichomoniasis, and Syphilis.
The Plague killed one third of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1353.
The Plague killed one-third of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1353. Its onset rapidly reduced trade, increased suspicions of outsiders, and resulted in lethal scapegoating of Jews and other groups. The wages of those who were lucky enough to survive climbed by as much as fivefold, increasing social mobility and freedom in a way never before seen. The rising costs of production, in turn, drove mechanisation, the compound growth of which arguably contributed to the much later industrial revolution.
Religious sentiment waned as people realised that the plague killed clergymen and sinners indiscriminately. The church, offering no prevention and no cure, prompted people to question religious dogma and begin to embrace reason and empirical evidence.
Some historians argue that the shake up of social structures and economic relations jolted Europe towards democracy and Enlightenment.
How might Coronavirus change society in our own time?
We are still in the early days of this pandemic. In a best case scenario, authorities will deal with the crisis, and life will continue along its usual trajectory.
But if the growth of the disease remains exponential, and a significant proportion of the world’s population succumbs to it during the next few months, the following outcomes are plausible:
- The debate on immigration will tilt to favour the closed-borders lobby.
The cultural gatekeepers of our time celebrate diversity as a good in itself. But what if this hallowed notion becomes associated with death and disease? Fears, legitimate or imagined, could shift sentiment towards the maintenance of group purity. In the most extreme case, this could completely invert the notion of “diversity” as strength, into “homogeneity” as strength. In homogeneity there lies the known, and, in theory, the “disease free”.
There is also the very real risk that countries which have the means and the organisation to effectively stamp out coronavirus, will merely be reinfected by poorly managed reservoirs elsewhere. This could lead to a two-tier globe where citizens of dysfunctional, high risk states are forbidden entry altogether to well managed and orderly ones. What little movement remains will be between countries that are of a similar high level of development. Poor and badly managed countries will be left to the ravages of the disease, and have to develop herd immunity through mass infection.
2. Social debates in the West will centre on real issues, and not luxury beliefs
University students, a generation ago, protested wars. Today they protest about how to define gender. The latter is possible when societies have high standards of living, protected rights and extraordinary freedoms. Fringe groups have had, until now, the luxury of vocal, televised, high status debates about issues that affect vanishingly few people.
Since the Coronavirus has entered the scene, coverage has shifted away from luxury beliefs and towards real issues of health, wellbeing and income. If the virus persists over months and years, and if it continues to ruin the lives of people across a wide spectrum of economic sectors, we can expect the obsession with luxury beliefs to be elbowed out indefinitely by bread and butter issues. This could act on the existing social fault lines, affecting which cultural gatekeepers, moving forward, are granted and denied influence.
3. Globalisation could reverse
Coronavirus, like the Black Death, may change trade patterns, accelerating the decoupling already underway between the world’s largest economies. Global supply chains in technology, pharma, and automobile sectors have already been hard hit by Coronavirus disruptions in China. Semiconductor factories, for example, cost north of $1 billion dollars to open. Long term shortages of key components in areas like this may mean new factories are built at home. Once this expensive infrastructure is in place, the benefit of stable supply from them may well outweigh the short term cost savings of outsourcing abroad to unstable suppliers. Across many sectors, such practices would work to isolate economies and cultures, reducing incentives to cooperate at both a corporate and a national level.
4. Industrial automation will create new winners and losers
We are already witnessing a mini-revolution in industrial automation for most physical products. Amazon warehouses are becoming increasingly automated, and will likely be fully robot-driven within 5–7 years. Tesla and other car makers add new automation levels with each passing year.
The current coronavirus scenario creates labour shortages and increases production expenses through absence and sick-leave. In severe cases factories shut down entirely. Sustained scarcity of labour will only amplify the incentive to rid the workplace of humans.
In this unfolding shift, the intellectual captains of industry, such as those who design robot microchips and the AI software that runs on them, will continue to grow in value in the marketplace. The vast majority beneath them, however, will lose their jobs, or, at best, take significant wage cuts.
This shift in labour value already poses a growing problem for society. Only a tiny fraction of people have the required talent for abstract thought, and the necessary interest in abstraction itself, to successfully combine the complex disciplines of mathematics, physics and engineering, into high value products. What’s more, each person with this skill set automates away thousands of jobs from other skill sets.
One hundred years ago people could be valuable members of society by performing mundane, low skill tasks. They could rise through society and command respectful positions. Avenues for upward mobility in status and income are now largely limited to this new Brahmin cast of intellectual. How we retrain those that lose their jobs, and how we give them a new purpose and meaning, is a big challenge ahead. Coronavirus has just made it a lot more difficult.
5. A revival of purity values
Between the 1940s and the 1970s, a diet suppressant pill by the name of Ayds did fantastically well. It seemed set to continue growth in the 1980s until the arrival of HIV generated a tragic association with the acronym AIDS. Sales, having grown the previous 30 years, fell by 50%. The product was so badly hit that it was pulled from the shelves within six years.
Chinese restaurants in Canada have suffered a 30–40% fall in revenue since the outbreak began.
Google searches for “Corona beer virus” show that the use of the term has increased 20 fold during the last six weeks.
As the above examples show, fear of a disease is not restricted to the disease itself. It can easily cross-contaminate loosely (and even entirely unrelated) domains. Blunt fears acting across many of these domains could conceivably trigger people to revert to 1950s-like notions of the familiar to combat a general fear of things unknown. This may mean a return to close-knit community, family bonds, nationalism instead of globalism, and sexual prudence.
The exact form that new beliefs would take, and how they would play out in a modern society gripped by social media and borderless entertainment, is anyone’s guess. Virtual work and virtual entertainment will become a given. On the other hand, isolation may strengthen community spirit, neighbourliness, and help us invest in better quality relationships.
What is historically clear is that new diseases bring new behaviours which aren’t confined to responding to the disease, and which aren’t predictable in the period before the disease.
I have argued before that the world is overdue for a severe recession. Downward pressures on income over the next few years are likely unavoidable, even without Coronavirus.
With Coronavirus and powder-keg ingredients like mass migration, and industrial automation, there is a growing risk of an abrupt inflection of Western values.
As I have hopefully demonstrated with the story of the author and his personal account of racism, a critical mass of new sentiment can rapidly grow to purge historic cultural gatekeepers and appointment new ones to safeguard a very different social order. What that social order will be, we don’t yet know, and may not be able to foresee.