Norms, Ethics and Civility. Plus Education.

Early in 2016, when it became apparent that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president, the question emerged: just what percentage of the population actually endorsed his brand of brash white nationalism? It always felt impossible that more than a small sliver of the country would honestly embrace (not just tolerate) his behaviors and proclamations.

A lot of us were counting on norms, ethics and civility—plus our historic institutions—to make a Trump presidency more like All Other Presidencies. Now we’ve seen how that turned out. Do we still get to call for reasonable and ethical behaviors?

There was a gut-wrenching piece in the Washington Post yesterday about a mask mandate in Mitchell, South Dakota. If there ever were a place where neighborly norms and civility ought to reign, where people would be willing to help others, it’s small-town South Dakota. A friend of mine used to live there. Her husband was a Methodist minister. If people in Mitchell were like Donna and Dick, they’d be masked up, washing their hands, and dropping food off on ill neighbor’s porches.

But it turns out that they’re not. In fact, many of them are adamantly anti-mask, anti-science. As beloved coaches and grandmothers are dying, they’re insisting on falsehoods. These people aren’t evil, and it’s wrong to dismiss them as dumb and worthless. They are still following community norms. It seems to me that what’s missing is a genuine education—accompanied by a widespread terror that education will change minds and hearts.

Because education has the power to do that. It’s not automatic. But if you have absorbed the habit of being curious and interested in things, education has the power to change your mind. Not always in predictable ways.

When I went off to Central Michigan University, in 1969, I thought I understood what was true and correct in the world. I thought there was a good reason why we were in Vietnam (to stop communism, which I naturally believed was evil). I thought that men in Congress (and they were pretty much all white men) knew more than I did about war and the economy and the rule of law, and were best positioned to make important decisions about war and peace.

I saw my high school classmates and guys who graduated a year or two earlier go off to ‘serve their country’ and saw parents proud of those sons who (like the previous generation who fought in WWII or Korea) ‘did the right thing.’ I saw a couple of them come home in a box, too. We were supposed to be really proud of them because they ‘gave’ their lives, at the same age I was, before having a chance to work, own a home or start a family.

All of those were a result of norms, ethics and civility.

During my freshman year, I started listening to people other than my parents, Walter Cronkite and local politicians. I stopped believing that there was one right way to look at everything. My sociology prof introduced me to Margaret Mead, and I went to lectures, to see Jane Fonda, and William Kunstler. I also went to church.

My professors started pushing on my thinking in both liberal AND conservative directions–after the Kunstler lecture, my philosophy professor called him a ‘greasy ambulance chaser.’ I started to understand the structure of argument and evidence, and to read and talk about things that were wildly divergent from the middle of the road, white, working-class, church-going discourse I’d been surrounded by. Cracks started to form in my mental model of what was true and correct.

The big issue then was, of course, Vietnam. I began to wonder what good it had done for the neighbor kid–Joey Hoeker–to have gone to war and been killed. I grew up with him. He was a big, goofy guy, a couple years ahead of me in school. I found it difficult to believe that he went to Vietnam to fight communism. He went to Vietnam because he was 18, had a low draft number and wasn’t (as they said out loud, back then) ‘college material.’ And he died.

For the first time, it occurred to me that tens of thousands of boys who were killed were just like Joey–kids who didn’t have big plans for their lives, and so were sent into harm’s way. I started showing up for anti-war demonstrations on that basis alone—long before I read about Robert McNamara and the politics of war, I was playing ‘Fortunate Son’ on my little two-speed record player.

I started questioning pretty much everything and reading all the time, including a lot of stuff that wasn’t assigned, like MS. Magazine, newly available in the CMU library. Having access to a top-flight university library was key to any transformative impact on my character. In case you think I was a flaming radical, I also dropped out of school and got married at age 20.

All this happened to me at mild-mannered CMU which was hardly a hotbed of revolutionary thought. I would have to say that most of the students in my music classes or my dorm did NOT go to demonstrations and were uncomfortable with anti-war, anti-government rhetoric. Some of their brothers were serving. Some of them were academically rootless, only in college to avoid the draft and because their parents could afford it. Their dads and moms were Republicans. They claimed to be apolitical.

Norms, ethics and civility were the order of the day.

But–for me–it was education, my first opportunity to soak in diversity of opinion, to dare (and dare is the right word) to think that maybe what I’d been taught, and believed, was mostly whitewash. It was where I learned that a call to ‘unity’ is often whitewash, too, and that norms are not necessarily moral or fair, even though everyone agrees to abide by them.

We’re now looking at the after-effects of Trump’s end game. It will take years to erase the illiberal, undemocratic policies and we’ve suffered unimaginable losses. And the percentage of people willing to believe his con is larger than it was before. Calling for civil behavior before untangling the moral questions that emerged from this election is silly. We have some educating to do.


  1. For me, it was the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, followed by the Chicago police riot at the Democratic Convention. There was a supper discussion in which my brother, a little bit still too young for the draft said he’d go to Canada before going to the draft board. My father, a Navy vet, started shouting there was no way his son would be a coward, and my mother answered there was no way her child was going to die in Nixon’s war. I started college a couple years after you, and by then Kent State had already happened, radlcally changing people’s perceptions.

    Perhaps it’s time to revive the teach-ins from the Vietnam era? They one that stands out for me was under the auspices of the Berrigan brothers, Jesuit priests, on Boston Common. Their leadership had an enormous impact in Catholic Boston.



    1. What I keep wondering is–where is this generation’s Kent State moment? It seems to me like the pandemic and the attempted coup (not to mention a dozen other outrages plus an impeachment) ought to stir people, young and old to action.

      I also don’t see a 2020 version of the Berrigan brothers popping up. Not that there aren’t powerful, articulate, moral leaders out there (Rev Wm Barber for example). Biden seems ready to try to lead the country in a moral direction. But with the WH and half of Congress and the entire Republican party wimping out…



      1. “Biden seems ready to try to lead the country in a moral direction.”

        I don’t see that at all considering his past political stances/history. I see it as:

        “Biden seems ready to try to continue to lead the country in an immoral direction.”

        Towards the same direction in which we’ve been heading since Reagan and Clinton combined to cement the neoliberal dogma in place. The same one Biden has been a part of all these years. It seems that you have been so caught up in the “norms and civility” of the political class-Democrat style, that you decry in your cogent article that you can’t see that neoliberal false ethics.

        Not that I don’t believe you can’t change. I believe you can!


      2. Hi Duane.

        Not really up for an argument about Joe Biden’s failings or the Democratic party’s weaknesses, although I am fully aware that both exist. Part of the bargain we make in supporting two political parties (and, collectively, resisting the more specific goals of the other parties–Libertarian, Green, and so on) is that what we end up with, policy-wise, generally sits in the middle, pleasing nobody 100%.

        I am more interested, now, in digging into what’s happened to the bureaucracy that’s held up government and reversing the damage done by the Trump administration.

        Perhaps you would be interested in a piece I posted before reading your comment:


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