Normativity: morality, ethics, doing the right thing, treating others as one would want to be treated, respecting moral symmetries, telling the truth, keeping commitments, following rules that are there to restrict harmful behavior, behaving in a way that contributes to the benefit of one’s society.
The idea of commitment to normativity is familiar. Someone can be committed to behaving ethically, to the point that they forego some narrowly self-interested benefit to avoid behaving unethically.
What about commitment to anti-normativity? This is commitment to doing the wrong thing, treating others as one wouldn’t want to be treated, disregarding moral symmetries, lying, breaking commitments, preventing rules from being followed, and parasitizing one’s society.
It is, naively, unsurprising that some people behave non-normatively, because non-normative behavior can bring a selfish benefit. It is rather more surprising that commitment to anti-normativity may be a thing; such a commitment would cause one to continue behaving anti-normatively, even when normative behavior would be selfishly optimal.
Let’s look at some examples of anti-normativity:
- The phrase “snitches get stitches”, and the idea that whistleblower protections might be necessary, points at the commonality of criminal conspiracies, which punish members not for breaking the law, but for causing the law to be enforceable. Turning in other members of a conspiracy one is part of is, in a sense, aggressing upon them: it’s causing them to face negative consequences they expected not to face. Members of a conspiracy commit to hiding themselves and each other from the law.
- Privacy-related social norms are optimized for obscuring behavior that could be punished if widely known. A common justification for such norms is that behavior that would be punished if known about is common, hence actual punishment is unfair scapegoating based on unpredictable factors; under privacy norms, revelation is more rare. Such norms are sometimes enshrined into law, e.g. the Right to be Forgotten, by which some people can force records of their own behavior to be deleted. (Note, privacy norms are an example of a paradoxical norm that is opposed to enforcement of norms-in-general).
- Traumatized people are forcefully made part of a conspiracy, and learn to side with the transgressor who is aggressing upon them. Such learning generalizes to siding with transgressors in general, as described in The Body Keeps the Score; while watching a play about dating violence, the traumatized children yell things like “kill the bitch”, siding with the transgressor in the scene. This is despite this transgressor not actually being powerful; in the outer setting in which the play is being put on, such behavior is frowned upon, so the traumatized kids are going against powerful social structures. (It is easy for traumatized people to conflate transgressiveness with power, but these frequently come apart)
- It’s very common to want to exclude people who are too “moralistic” or “judgy” from social groups. If this were just a matter of disagreeing with these people about morality, then moral argumentation would be the most natural response; what is being opposed is, rather, individuals making moral judgments in a way that implies that some normal behaviors are unacceptable. Being committed to behaving normally, then, means being committed not to follow moral laws that would compel behaving abnormally. (Relatedly, “vice signalling”, e.g. smoking, can make others less afraid of moral judgment, as the vice signaller has morally lowered themselves, having less optionality to claim the moral high ground. Many Christian teachings, e.g. “judge not lest you be judged”, “Recognize always that evil is your own doing, and to impute it to yourself.”, recommend the social strategy of not claiming moral high ground.)
- Some social groups separate themselves from the “commoners”, making it clear that they’re a different class, not subject to the rules that constrain the commoners, e.g. militaries, intelligence agency members, high-level corporate executives, some professional classes, some spiritual practitioners, aristocracies throughout history. The Inner Ring describes a general dynamic of this form. They may transgression-bond with each other to show that they are not subject to the normal rules. Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt writes that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, i.e. the truly autonomous leader can allow rules to be broken at will; David Graeber describes royal and ritualistic power as involving socially tolerated value inversion in the last chapter of On Kings.
Why would dynamics like these result in commitments to anti-normativity? In some cases, like criminal conspiracy, the answer is obvious: exiting the conspiracy is, by default, dangerous. In general, being part of a conspiracy for enough time will cause conspiratorial behavior to seem “normal”, such that going back to non-conspiratorial behavior requires resetting one’s sense of normal behavior, as in cult deconversion.
Anti-normativity is closely related to motive ambiguity; if there is ambiguity between the motives of normativity and of local expediency (or other local social motives), then behaving anti-normatively signals that local expediency is what is being optimized for, and shows that one is giving up the option of blaming others for behaving non-normatively.
A bubble of anti-normativity is one where members are constantly signalling that they are behaving non-normativity and are encouraging others to behave non-normatively as well. Such a bubble (essentially, a conspiracy) can maintain itself as long as it can continue meeting its constraints, e.g. intaking enough resources and not being successfully opposed.
How is anti-normativity related to oppression? In a society that runs on normativity, there can be something approaching equality of opportunity; people can gain for themselves by following the rules and providing value to others. In a society that runs on anti-normativity, such strategies will fail. Instead of following the rules being the way to get ahead, accommodating anti-normativity while still conforming to local cultural expectations is necessary to get ahead. Kelsey Piper recently described dynamics in bureaucracies by which lower-class people get treated worse than upper-middle-class people, despite appealing to the same rules. Simply depending on the bureaucracies to follow the rules fails, since they don’t follow the rules; instead, it’s necessary to have more subtle social skills, such as knowing when to appeal, talking to people in a polite yet demanding way, seeming like the kind of person who society generally treats well, seeming to be expensive to mess with, and so on.
Our society has a term for people who follow rules consistently (Asperger’s syndrome); it is considered a mental disorder, one that sharply reduces people’s social skills. While Asperger’s is adaptive in lawful societies, it is maladaptive in anti-lawful societies, such as Nazi Germany, where the term was coined. Hans Asperger was a Nazi who euthanized some of his patients; he identified the flaw of Asperger’s patients as failure to be absorbed into the national super-organism, a flaw also attributed to Jews, who have a highly lawful religion and are disproportionately likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s.
If bureaucracies followed rules consistently, then Asperger’s would not be a social disadvantage; it would imply a high ability to navigate society. In a society where corporations and other bureaucracies are anti-normative moral mazes, Asperger’s is a disadvantage, because appealing to rules alone is not an effective way to cause bureaucracies to provide service.
(A common intuition is that bureaucracies are bad because they follow the rules consistently, lacking subtle human factors. As a counter to this intuition, consider the case of MMORPG games; the game mechanics function as a rule-following bureaucracy, e.g. the mechanics of stores and banking in the game. Such games are fun because of the consistency of the software rules; inconsistency in game mechanics decreases predictability of effects of action, thereby decreasing effective planning horizons and increasing perception of unfairness.)
One can appeal to institutions on the basis of rules, or one can appeal on the basis of privilege, being the sort of person who should be rewarded for no reason. Social classes are a matter of privilege, of people being treated one way or another because of who they are, what category they fit in, based on largely aesthetic properties.
If treatment by institutions is a matter of illegible cultural factors, then a large part of what is important is to be “normal”: being near the center of some Gaussian-ish distribution over people, such as a social class. When everyone is transgressing, non-transgression isn’t a defense, while not standing out from the crowd (hiding as a statistic) is, since it prevents being singled out for scapegoating. The behavior is much more Fristonian (avoiding surprise) than decision-theoretic (trying to accomplish something that isn’t already the case).
Culture is correlated with race, both because people of different ancestry have different histories, and because people treat each other differently depending on appearance. If society’s institutions are disproportionately occupied by people of some cultural group, then their sense of “normal” will accord with what is normal for that cultural group, not what is normal for other cultural groups.
So, anti-normativity is racially/culturally biased by default, in a way that normativity isn’t, or at least is much less so. While explicit rules can be followed by people of a variety of different cultures, implicit social expectations are naturally particular to a narrow set of cultures. Anti-normativity will tend to force behavior to follow a Gaussian-like distribution, where more central behavior is, by default, more rewarded than extremal behavior (with the exception of savvy extremal behavior optimized for taking advantage of the anti-normative dynamic).
Therefore, explicit anti-racism is much more necessary for mitigating oppression if anti-normativity is dominant than if normativity is dominant; having institutions staffed by a people of a variety of different cultures broadens the set of what is considered normal by people in the institution, causing it to be more natural for the institution to service people of a variety of races/cultures. This is, obviously, nowhere near a good solution, since institutions are still not following the rules, and not all cultures can be represented in a given institution; it is, rather, a harm-reduction measure given an already-bad situation.
4 thoughts on “On commitments to anti-normativity”
Trippy article. I skimmed it, and will come back and read it carefully a few times. Where did you get this domain name? (unstableontology) — I showed my roommate a project I did a few years ago, at http://origin.org/ws.cfm — and he came back to me with the link to this page. I am actually working on an ontology project myself right now — maybe i should call it “stableontology”. Thanks!
I got the name from noticing that I use a different ontology to represent and talk about things at different times, such as when talking with different people. There is something interesting about the process that generates, picks up, works in, and modifies ontologies.
Also, unstable can be as in an unstable release of a software product… I’m often releasing pieces of ontology that are incomplete and subject to change, like unstable software releases.
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One piece of nuance I have to add is that transgression is contextual, and anti-normativity makes sense as a response to an internal perception that the external norms are misaligned. This applies particularly if there’s a sense that external norms are significantly misaligned and there isn’t trust in one’s internal judgement as to which of those norms are aligned and which are not. Anti-normativity helps to unstick oneself from the external norms and escape a local minimum, and eventually establish internally generated norms or to exit to a community with more aligned norms.