Let’s Talk About “Societal Norms”

Because there are better ways to run a society.


I “godwinned” myself this weekend, at a national conference.

It was a conference focusing on scholarly publishing and blockchain technology, and I’d been invited to talk about citation indexing because the combination of the two (blockchain technology and citation indexes) is a personal hobby of mine. Yes, I’m great at parties, why do you ask? Anyway the talk went fine, and I got through the whole thing without, I think, horribly offending anyone.

But there was another talk, by a self-described “blockchain skeptic,” which did not go over quite so well with the crowd.

Now before I go any further, I want to point out that I am absolutely in favour of skepticism when it comes to the usefulness of blockchains. Here’s a handy flowchart to find out if you need one (hint: you probably don’t). The vast majority of things are not sufficiently improved by the added cost and complexity of a blockchain to warrant the use of one.

But that said, this presentation had a number of serious issues. There were some very strange claims. The claim was made that privately-delivered packages are stolen off America’s porches more than USPS-delivered letters because stealing letters is a “federal offense,” which is wrong because packages are simply more likely to contain things of value that can be fenced anonymously. The claim was also made that Bitcoin isn’t a currency because it’s a security, which, well, the SEC disagrees with, anyway. The claim was also made that we don’t need a self-sovereign identity (a government-free secure ID) because we have social security numbers, which was just a terrible argument because have you even looked at the costs of identity theft?

But the chief claim that made me twitch was the assumption that “societal norms” are a simpler, more reliable way to do most things.

And boy did that not sit well with me.

Here’s one example: the presenter said that speed limits are governed by societal norms, and that’s fine. If a speed limit is (say) 30 miles per hour, you can probably go 40 miles per hour. The police generally don’t mind, he said, until you get to 41 or 42, and then they really get you. It’s a societal norm that certain rules can be bent. On the surface this seems like it gels with my experience, except I’m white, and, well.

Have you ever heard of “driving while black”?

See, societal norms are not just. They are not fair. They are privy to racism, sexism, and bigotry of all stripes. Societal norms automatically privilege those in power. There are a lot of places in America where it’s generally agreed that you can break a law with impunity, but only if you’re white. Waiting for a friend at Starbucks before you buy anything? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “loitering.” Having a loud party on your lawn? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “disturbing the peace.” You see where I’m going with this?

Societal norms replicate our worst biases.

So I godwinned myself and pointed out that societal norms are both powerful and often dangerous, in that they also gave us the Holocaust. The societal norms in 1930s Germany gave Jewish, queer, and white people different speed limits—if you replace “speed limits” with “rights to even exist.”

Societal norms are almost always a terrible thing to rely on, because society is made of people, and people can’t be relied upon to be fair and just to one another. It’s not that we don’t ever get it right, but all you have to do is look at the rise in actual Nazis in America, or at the rate of white Evangelical support for the lying, self-aborbed, racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist president of the United States, to see that “norms” are easily made worse with only the slightest of nudges.

Frankly, given with how much ease they privilege the powerful at the expense of the dispossessed, it’s probably a moral imperative to get away from reliance on societal norms.

So does that mean we should use blockchains to help govern society more? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’d just help us, as members of society, to replicate the problems of societal norms in more high-tech ways. But what it does mean is that “societal norms work” is a bad argument against looking into whether new technologies might be able to help.

Because god knows we need all the help we can get.

Signed: The Remixologist


Featured image is of a speed limit sign reading “Speed Limit 25 Miles,” by Eric Fischer, CC BY 2.0