I’ve had the good fortune to be witnessing the pandemic from the comfortable confines of New Brunswick, Canada, where there have been just 186 cases and two deaths recorded since the crisis began six months ago, and government and citizens alike have adhered to a consistent plan of action to hold the virus in check. It’s a stark contrast to the situation south of the border.
Many aspects of the American pandemic response have been startling, perhaps none more so than the adamant refusal of a belligerent minority to wear masks in public spaces. It was one thing to jump the gun on getting back to work and opening bars, restaurants and nail salons too quickly, but quite another for people to “rebel” against a key public health recommendation designed to mitigate the spread of this dangerous disease and save lives.
Source: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash
Of course, there is more going on here than one simple act of social defiance. The mask issue is part of the larger political and social turmoil that has been racking the United States for a number of years. In a forthcoming book, Teen Spirit: How Adolescence Transformed the Adult World, I make the case that an important social catalyst of these recent problems has been the displacement of adult norms and practices over the course of time by adolescent habits of thinking and acting.
This gradual development has affected many aspects of our lives, for good and for bad. On the negative side of the ledger, the most pernicious effect has been a decline in various forms of social civility and a troubling rise in impulsive behavior and anti-social attitudes. While this development was long in the making before Donald Trump became President in 2016, he does serve as an unfortunate embodiment of these larger social changes. I would not be the first to suggest that Trump is young at heart in all the wrong ways, a senior citizen who acts more like an angry and petulant teenager, caring most about himself and showing scant regard for social and legal norms in either his personal or public life.
My book describes how a similar “adolescent” mindset, marked by egocentrism and disregard for public norms, has slowly taken hold in the population at large. One data source used is the World Values Surveys, carried out every few years since the early 1980s. These surveys point to a gradual erosion, chiefly among rising generations of Americans, in principled commitment to legal norms such as not cheating on taxes, accepting bribes, or claiming government benefits to which one is not entitled.
When the most recent WVS results were made public just last month, I was curious to see what they would reveal about this trend. It turns out that the deterioration in norm adherence has been steadily advancing. Whereas in 2011, 70% said cheating on taxes was never justifiable, by 2017 this had fallen to 64%. Likewise, the percentage saying that stealing property was never justifiable dropped from 76% to 70% over that same period. Perhaps most troubling was the decline – nearly 10 points, from 66% to 57% – in the percentage who categorically rejected the use of “violence against other people.” None of these are seismic changes, but they are consistent drops in a fairly short period that signal ongoing erosion in the normative foundation that helps hold society together.
I should add that these survey questions ask people to respond on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 means the action in question (e.g. using violence against others) is “never justifiable” and 10 means it is “always justifiable.” Most respondents who say something other than “never justifiable” do still place themselves at the lower end of the scale (in the 2 to 5 range), so it would be wrong to paint them as diehard nihilists who think laws should be broken and violence deployed at every opportunity.
But if the Trump era has taught us anything, it is to be wary of the proverbial slippery slope. For once people are not adamant about adhering to core social and legal norms, they are less likely to be affronted when others trample them. And when transgressions become more frequent – whether it’s public actions by the President or everyday hostile behaviors – they can become increasingly normalized. They can also spread to aspects of our lives that really should be immune from any kind of social aggression, such as whether we act with due regard for the safety of others during a pandemic.
Clearly the United States is facing a host of urgent challenges – not just the pandemic and its economic fallout, but a deeper social malaise as well. The solution, from my perspective, will involve not only ensuring there are adults in the room and behind the desk at the highest levels of public office, but also working towards the reinvigoration of an adult mindset throughout the public and private spaces of the country as a whole.