I’ve been thinking a lot about norms, customs, and traditions. Basically, a norm can be compared to a default template for behavior.
Norms can have two forms: descriptive or prescriptive. Descriptive norms merely describe what most people do. For example, most people sleep at night, and work during the day. This is a statement of fact — it is a norm in our community. But this norm doesn’t really describe what ought to take place. Some might argue that there are prudential reasons for adhering to this norm, but few people would describe this custom as an ought, or consider a bad person for violating it. It’s just the default for people to sleep at night and work during the day, and because it’s the default, there are good, prudential reasons for going along with it. This would be a good example of a descriptive norm.
Prescriptive norms describe what ought to be the case. Now, some norms lay claim on everyone — for example, everyone should wash their hands after using the restroom. This is a custom, tradition, or norm that is definitely prescriptive. You should do this. That’s the essence of a prescriptive norm.
Other prescriptive norms are more flexible — they don’t lay claim on individuals, but merely lay claim on the aggregate. For example, I don’t think that everyone couple should be a stay at home mother. I don’t think this norm should prescribe behavior for every individual couple. There should be give and take on this norm, and I think even in communities where this is a norm, there is give and take. Few people want to hold this as a template that every individual should adhere to. Rather, we recognize that in the aggregate, when this ceases to be a norm, there are drastic changes and consequences in society. Our very understanding, for example, of the purposes of marriage can change.
I think it is possible to lament the changing norms of society without judging or scrutinizing the choices of individuals. For example, I think we see far too many mothers dividing their attention between children and a career — it is no longer a norm for a mother to dedicate her time to child raising. But I can say that without judging any particular mother with a career. Because I see think this norm should be binding on the aggregate, but not necessarily on the granular level of the individual. Individuals can and should be free to make decisions based on individual inspiration and the needs of their family, while a community on a whole can try to normalize — that is, enforce a norm — committed stay-at-home mothers in the aggregate.
For that reason, I think it’s sad that it’s hard to lament changing norms without offending everyone who makes a different choice. I think it really is possible to hold a norm as ideal without demeaning the choices of individuals.
Yet at the same time, I don’t think it’s possible for us to have norms without individuals feeling pressured by society, in some way, to follow them. That’s what norms do. Even descriptive norms do this to some extent. When the majority of people act a certain way, we anticipate that an individual we meet will act that way. And when we know that others anticipate that we will act a certain way, and when we know that they know that we know that they anticipate that we act a certain way, we feel as if we are somehow committing a wrong by violating their expectations. There’s no way around that — it’s a social fact. We feel twinges of guilt when we defy the expectations of others, even when we feel we have made the right decision.
This is ok. This is how communities work. This is how communities normalize values that it believes should be practiced on the aggregate, even if individuals here and there deviate from the practice. And so it makes perfect sense that those don’t fit the mold, who don’t follow the templates, will feel out of place or that they don’t belong. It’s natural to feel that way. And, whenever norms are in place, it will be almost inevitable. It’s hard to have norms without those who violate them — even if they have good reason to — feeling alienated or judged for doing so.
It seems to me that many people complain because they feel pressured into following a norm that they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are an exception to. For example, some couples elect not to have children. Other couples decide that both of them need to work, rather than stay at home and raise children. Some individuals decide not to get married at all. And in each of these cases, there may be very good reasons for making those decisions. But we as a society should, nonetheless, preserve norms that make these behaviors minority behaviors — that is, it shouldn’t be normal (in the sense that most people do it that way). And that means that the couple who chooses not to have children may very well be asked, more often than they would like, when or if they plan to have children, and the individual who elects not to marry may be asked, more often that he or she might like, how his or her dating life is going, or if they want to be set up on a blind date, or whatever.
And in that context, those who make decisions to violate those norms are going to feel judged, even if they aren’t. They’re going to feel scrutinized, even if they aren’t. And the solution is not to dismantle the norms. The solution is for those individuals to reflect and confirm that they are making the right choices, and press forward regardless of the feared scrutiny — and for the rest of us to be careful to always treat others with warmth, respect, and friendship, even if they violate our expectations. But it is not incumbent on us to simply never expect anything at all of others, since holding generalized expectations — even if we recognize that not everyone will meet those expectations — is pretty much the essence of a norm in the first place.
My conclusion: righteous norms are a good and necessary thing — even if individuals who have good reason to violate them feel judged for doing so. Being expected by others to behave in certain ways comes with the territory of being a member of a community. Let’s not bash norms merely because there exists exceptions. Let’s do reach out to those exceptions with warmth and friendship, but little we do will help them not feel slightly (socially) uneasy about their decisions, so long as a sturdy norm remains in place. But I think that’s probably ok, and preferable to a society with no prescriptive norms at all (which is likely impossible anyways).