Can social norms be objective? Spoiler: not really

So, you say that you consider yourself to be a progressive person. How about forced sterilizations, genital mutilation, apartheid, and imprisonment of those considered to be degenerates. Does this seem like a progressive concept, and would it ensure that you view any nation who adopts it as a policy as a politically advanced, progressive, and metropolitan place? If not, then your political views must be extremely behind, and you are clearly not a progressive and well educated person. Well, at least not by 1930’s standards.

Early 1900s American sign promoting forced sterilization.

All of the aforementioned views have been regarded as the apex of progressive thought at one time or another, but are now viewed as atrocities.They’re two conclusions which we can draw from this, “the past was just a horrible time and everyone from it was evil.” or, “these extreme views were considered progressive simply because they became popular opinion among the right type and amount of people, and they are regarded as atrocities now for similar reasons.” While I could write a much shorter paper on the first possible conclusion, the second option seems to make much more sense, and also happens to be a major theme in the book, V for Vendetta. The in-book government is able to torture and kill Millions of LGBTs, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, moderates, and Socialists without opposition, and the pursuit of a master race even becomes the base of the new Britain’s pop culture, with several in-book songs, movies, TV shows focused on the superiority of Anglo-Saxons and danger of “inferior” groups. These events and the mentality surrounding them finding footing in a developed metropolitan nation may seem like a far fetched idea fit only for a graphic novel, but this may not be the case.

An in-book propaganda poster and TV show from "V for Vendetta". The TV show is titled "Storm Saxon."

We all like to think that we are immune to popular opinion, with many a D.A.R.E speaker telling us that we can resist peer pressure. However, the ability to resist what is considered a social norm is much less common than many think. This can be seen in a study and research paper by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In the study various participants were read a story in which two people commit some sort of widely agreed upon yet circumstantially harmless societal taboo, and are then asked whether or not it was wrong for the people in the story to do so. In the case of the research paper, a story in which two siblings commit incest once with no negative results is used. The participants’ responses were very similar, as can be seen in this excerpt from the research paper, “Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love, and they then begin searching for reasons (Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2000). They point out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control. They argue that Julie and Mark will be hurt, perhaps emotionally, even though the story makes it clear that no harm befell them. Eventually, many people say something like, "I don't know, I can't explain it, I just know it's wrong" (Haidt 814). In these responses, the speakers immediately denounced the story’s characters for doing something which they thought was fundamentally wrong. However, even when they could provide no accurate evidence and there were people there to correct their false evidence, they stood by their original statements.

With personal opinions cast aside, incest makes a good (yet uncomfortable) example of a popular opinion based social prohibition because it is known to have been ingrained into Western culture as a highly taboo and outright evil act for hundreds of years. As a result, we all live in a society where the simple mention of a topic which is relatively unharmful when compared to topics such as genocide is often met with a similar amount of repulsion and discomfort, due to nothing but the opinions of everyone around us. This would explain the answers of the study participants. Even though they had seemingly no reason to do so, their constant exposure to a popular consensus in which a random act is universally scorned caused them to be hardwired to the same consensus, with any rebuttal towards it being met with a stubborn *does not compute* mentality.

The aforementioned study connects to V for Vendetta and my other previous topics in several ways, mainly because in all of these cases, people accept opinions as undebatable truth due to environment. In V for Vendetta, after Britain is nearly destroyed along with the rest of the world in a massive nuclear war, the nation enters a state of chaos and desperation, during which a highly charismatic and strong leader manages to take power. The only problem is, he is a fascist dictator who rules with an iron fist and holds a feverish obsession with the ethnic cleansing of Britain, and the British people are willing to oblige his wishes. In the book, it is established that before England is crippled by nuclear war it was what would be considered a normal society, akin to real 80’s Britain. So, you may be wondering how it would turn to such extremes. The answer is, more people inevitably began to believe what was being said by one man, that group became large enough that more people accepted the presented beliefs as moral truths, and eventually, nearly the entire population acquired the same mentality from their peers, barely thinking about it in the process.

A common example of such an event happening in real life can be seen in previous societal views of homosexuality and interracial marriage which, although accepted now, were both viewed as sickening and morally reprehensible in several developed Western nations from the 1890s to the 1950s. America and Britain even went as far as implementing rigorous eugenics programs targeted towards gays (At the time, homosexuality was thought to be transferred by birth), the mentally disabled, and African Americans, effectively and forcefully sterilizing 60,000 people in America alone(500 of which were in Connecticut). Throughout the years in which the concept of eugenics was popular, the mindset only grow in popularity until, apparently by luck, the mindset of equality for races and sexualities grew enough popular support to become accepted as the social norm.

A front page New York Times article published on December 17, 1963, detailing homosexuality as "one of the many problems confronting law enforcement"

Interestingly, opposite circumstances have occurred before, showing us that history doesn’t always move towards what we consider to be progressive. In 1920’s Germany, Berlin became host to Europe’s central LGBT community despite the abhorrence of fellow nations. For a short time, Germany was the only developed nation in which two people of the same gender could engage in a relationship without being persecuted and cast out by their society. However, all it took to reverse popular opinion was for enough men with enough charisma and a conflicting opinion to persuade the masses otherwise. With enough of the population being convinced of these opinions by Hitler and the Nazi party, inferiority of homosexuals became as much of a societal truth to them as acceptance of sexual orientation has to us the. Of course, at this point the German populace was eager to exterminate the gays whom they had embraced just years before. While you might say something along the lines of, “this is different. The Nazis were involved, and they were the most evil humans, like, ever,” this would go under the mindset of, “The past was just a horrible time and everyone from it was evil.” The truth is, no matter how evil the Nazis were, they would’ve had no chance of accomplishing their goals if the German people didn’t accept what they were hearing from those around them as the undebatable truth, which is a common occurrence in today’s world.

A group of transvestites at a club in 1920s Weimar Germany.

A group of homosexual inmates, indicated by the pink triangles on their uniforms, are led into a Nazi concentration camp.

If I had read the study mentioned earlier before I read V for Vendetta, I have a feeling that my reaction would have been the same as the participants. However, when I read the study, I realized that instead of immediately jumping to the same conclusion, I took some time to think whether or not anyone in the story was being harmed or damaged, before reaching no as a conclusion. But still, this was in a case when the reader (me) had some idea that they were being tested. If this were not so, my reaction might have been identical to those of the studied individuals. However, while V for Vendetta may not have altered my human instinct of believing what I hear around me, it has encouraged me to look at what are usually considered to be normal social concepts with a slightly more critical point of view. In conclusion, as evidenced by the many other historical examples, we may never be able to reach a social state of universally fair objective morality, but by trying to view an opinion as just that, an opinion, before buying into it as fact, we might get a little bit closer to objectivity.

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