informal rules the rocky road of social norms, coffee wallpaper, assuming innocence while being reasonable

When it is not a large scale catastrophe, as especially headline worthy crime, what scoial media and water cooler talk usually concerns falls under the general heading of social norms. Someone or some institution ( the church, government, police) have violated a set of uncodified rules of behavior. As much as people might claim to hate the infraction they do seem to love the opportunity to talk about it. A habit that reaches back centuries. While it is part truth mixed with a lot of fiction anyone who has been watching The Borgias knows that social norms and gossip can be a powerful combination. Enough to bring down empires and cause wars, even without the aid of Twitter. Social Norms & Law: An Introduction

I – Social Norms

With sufficient reason it has been said, ‘like cows, social norms are easier to recognize than to define’ (Basu 1998). Social norms are the motley of informal, often unspoken rules, guides and standards of behavior the authority for which is vague if not diffuse, and the communal sanction for which can be swift and cutting. These nonlegal rules and obligations are followed and fulfilled in part because failure to do so brings upon the transgressor such social sanctions as induced feelings of guilt or shame, gossip, shunning, ostracism, and not infrequently, violence. In one sense, to be sure, their authority and power is that of ‘the group,’ i.e., relations between individuals, multiplicity of relations, and relations among those relations (cf. Caws 1984). And that group is phenomenologically captured with ‘the Look’ of ‘the Other,’ the Look symbolizing those sanctions for norm violation that entail a disparaging glance or expression of disapproval or disgust, often as a prelude to shunning, ostracism or violence. This is one reason effective norms typically have strong roots in the soil of small groups and communities, as sanctions are ready at hand and swiftly applied. And yet, as Philip Pettit argues, sanctions or rewards for norm noncompliance or compliance need not involve intentional expression through word or deed: ‘…[P]eople are rewarded by being thought well of, and punished by being thought badly of, whether or not those attitudes are intentionally expressed. And I can know that I am rewarded or punished in such a manner by others—I can bask in their good opinion or smart under their bad opinion—without their actually doing anything’ (Pettit 2002, pp. 280-81). The feeling of guilt or shame may make the external enforcement of internalized norms unnecessary. Among the tangible and intangible rewards attached to the compliance with social norms one finds increased esteem, trust and, most importantly, cooperation.

From table manners to rites of passage (from birth to death) marked by routine, solemnity or celebration, conformity to social norms can bring in their wake social order and successful collective action, while creating and maintaining cultural meaning(s). Similar to the Sartrian notion of the practico-inert (Caws 1984, pp. 155-88), social norms can appear inscribed with the necessities of nature, their exigencies unavoidable and ubiquitous, emblematic of both obstacle and opportunity. Historically, and at least up until the modern period, norms have changed rather slowly; yet our own time retains something of the stability and persistence of norms: ‘Where faddism is the norm, the rapid succession of fads indicates norm stability not instability’ (Posner and Rasmusen 1999, p. 379). Still, norms can and often do rapidly change, a comforting thought when considering norms of a perverse or pernicious variety (e.g. the duel or vendetta). Norm entrepreneurs responsible for initiating bandwagon effects and norm cascades (Sunstein 1997, p. 38), for example, can change norms for better and worse.

When people talk about and advocate for social change that may involve some formal changes to laws, but much of the time it is change that is a mix of social norms and the law or just changes in cultural behavior. That change can be either in opposition – stopping behavior that can been thought of as socially acceptable – everyday forms of ethnocentric behavior for example. Or they can be in support of proposing new more positive behavior – like allowing  marital/family rights to same sex partners. Social norms can be something to be thankful for. While committing physical violence against someone is against the law, for the most part people do not engage in violent behavior because they would become social outcasts. Social norms as a civilizing force. On the other hand some groups/societies can have perverse and well ingrained social norms such as blaming and punishing victims of rape. Social norms as injustice.

steaming coffee wallpaper

What about the Woman Strauss-Kahn Allegedly Raped?

While I mostly work with household workers in private homes, the life of a hotel chambermaid is very similar. Being a housekeeper at a hotel (or anywhere else) doesn’t exactly put you on equal footing with the wealthy and powerful when you are in “their” space. So when you’re stuck in a bedroom (or private household) with them, what are your defenses?

Statistics about the frequency of sexual assault of hotel maids are difficult to find, but here’s what I know about New York City’s household workers, from a 2006 report by the Data Center and Domestic Workers United: “Thirty-three percent of workers experience verbal or physical abuse or have been made to feel uncomfortable by their employers. One-third of workers who face abuse identify race and immigration status as factors for their employers’ actions.” What we do know about the conditions of hotel housekeepers is that immigrants comprise the majority of that workforce, as do women of color, and that their workplace is dangerous on its own, let alone with the additional risk of sexual assault. Rushing to keep up with demand, hotel housekeepers have an injury rate 40 percent higher than workers in the overall service sector.

I have many other questions too. The two that come to mind immediately are:

Do Europeans and North Americans just assume that being subjected to sexual aggression is a given if you’re a woman working as a maid in a wealthy man’s home or hotel suite?
Why would anyone assume that a working-class woman would lie about a sexual assault to get money from a settlement?

I can’t fathom why anyone would believe these things, but here we are in the comments section in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and ABC News where every fourth word is “setup” and where the maid’s getting very little empathy. I don’t think the people writing these comments or news stories are malicious. It’s just a symptom of the way household workers are treated in the United States and around the world. They are servants, and therefore — for hotel guests and the people who can afford to have them clean their homes — barely human.

While that writer has heard rumors that the victim is black I read on another site that she might be a Muslim. If she is a black Muslim the digital lynching on the net will probably ratchet up a notch. This is what intellectual Republican Ben Stein has to say ( no this is not parody), Ben Stein Watch, DSK edition

If he is such a womanizer and violent guy with women, why didn’t he ever get charged until now?
This is a case about the hatred of the have-nots for the haves, and that’s what it’s all about.
So far, he’s innocent, and he’s being treated shamefully. If he’s found guilty, there will be plenty of time to criticize him.
Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes?
Maybe Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty but if so, he is one of a kind, and criminals are not usually one of a kind.
He is one of the most recognizable people on the planet. Did he really have to be put in Riker’s Island?

It it always a good reminder in the heat of a high profile crime to remember that the accused are according to the law, innocent until proven guilty. If it was Stein’s intent to convey that message he has done a bang up job of undermining himself with some demented added commentary. Considering the reports so far the police apparently have some pervasive evidence a crime was committed. That evidence can include DNA evidence, blood type match, saliva, torn clothing, bruising or other injury on the victim, skins flakes, clothing fibers or hair left on the victim, security footage from the hotel and witnesses that reported hearing strange noises. In other words enough evidence to convince the district attorney that an arrest and prosecution was warranted. I can imagine Steins howls of injustice now if he suffered a home invasion, the perps left similar evidence and were arrested, but let go on their own recognizance. While a false accusation is possible, optimally the justice system operates on evidence and logic. That means that legally we should both assume innocence and that evidence of crime does exist. This is not complicated, except apparently for conservative intellectuals.