Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Norm Shifting in Civil Society versus Government

"But, after all, I did break one of your laws."

"Well, what do you think they're for?"
anamak says, in the course of our discussion of the dying private/public distinction and the issue of whether this will lead to a change in social norms,
in most societies there is a strong and often not completely logical set of norms and unwritten rules laid down by social and cultural consensus. What often makes some of these norms and rules bearable to an individual is her ability to maintain a certain degree of separation between private and public spheres. To this extent, I am not sure that the erosion between public and private personae is a good thing.
This highlights the problem I have with many current social norms: They can make common, harmless behavior seem deviant and rare, and thus when a private transgression comes to public light, society can come down on the individual with great force, either due to hypocrisy or ignorance. And the narrower the scope of acceptable social behavior, the more likely it is that we have transgressed in some way.

This puts civil society on the internet roughly in the same situation as the legal world is with respect to the increasing ease with which violations can be detected (in the latter, through pinpoint searches). I agree with Whitman that it's likely that selective enforcement by government is a bigger threat than before under these circumstances. But because there is no monopoly on social pressure as there is on force, a "groundswell of support for changing the [norms] in question" seems to be a more likely outcome in the non-governmental context.
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