For the past couple of weeks, I have been listening to an audiobook recommended by a friend I recently visited in London. It
It’s called Sapiens – and it bills itself as “a brief history of humankind”. I find the book a compelling listen, especially regarding how human beings have come to dominate the earth. On this point, Wikipedia says the author “Harari’s main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers.” And Harari calls the mechanism by which we do this “inter-subjectivity”.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear.
I have never really thought of it that way. But it makes sense.
Harari differentiated between three types of truths:
- objective truths like the speed of light is 299,792 kilometers per second, which are true whether we believe them or not
- subjective truths like an opinion about whether the woman depicted in the Mona Lisa is painting by Leonardo da Vinci was ‘beautiful’
- and inter-subjective truths like the concept that stealing is bad, or even illegal, which is not just a norm, but something codified into law
It’s that last truth “linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals” – as Harari puts it – that makes homo sapiens different, and allows us to live relatively peacefully in large groups of thousands, millions or even billions. Norms create order that allows people to co-exist in a relatively non-violent state, where otherwise ‘the law of the jungle’ – where anything goes and naked power and domination are the only rules – would reign supreme.
But, according to Harari, these norms are a ‘fiction’. They are what I would call a ‘collective subjective truth’ – meaning they are only true because collectively we all say they are true. For example, I was in New York with my friend Marcus last week. And as we crossed the street, a man with headphones on was singing to himself loudly. There was nothing remarkable about the man except that he was singing loudly as if he weren’t violating a norm. I told my friend that I saw tons of people like that in New York, when – in my world – “anyone who wasn’t five years old knows only crazy people sing to themselves out loud in public”. I said to him, “it’s almost as if different norms apply in New York about how to act and dress in public that don’t apply elsewhere.” They probably do.
Is one norm better than the other though? You tell me.
The Rule of Law
Last night, I just passed the point in the book where Harari talks about both the norms and laws of Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. and contrasts them with the norms and laws established to govern the United States of America when it was formed about the same amount of time A.D. as Hammurabi ruled B.C., 1776 years.
Here’s a part of Hammurabi’s code that Harari focuses on:
- If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye
- If he should break the bone of another superior man, they shall break his bone
- If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver
- If he should blind the eye of a slave of a superior man or break the bone of a slave of a superior man, he shall weigh and deliver one-half of the slave’s value in silver
- If a superior manstrikes a woman of superior class and thereby causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver ten shekels of silver for her fetus
- If that woman should die, they shall kill his daughter
- If he should cause the woman of a commoner class to miscarry her fetus by the beating, he shall weigh and deliver five shekels of silver
- If that woman should die, he shall weigh and deliver thirty shekels of silver
- If he strikes a slave-woman of a superior man and thereby causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver two shekels of silver
- If that slave-woman should die, he shall weigh and deliver twenty shekels of silver
Harari goes on to explain that you see a clear distinction between superior men, commoners and slaves as three classes of society in terms of what they are worth by law in Hammurabi’s code. And he notes that the code also outlines females solely in terms of their worth to their husbands or fathers, as if they are not equal to men, but rather, lesser.
These distinctions were codified into law. They were both societal norms and laws of the land. When people talk about “the rule of law”, they’re talking about following norms that we collectively as a society all agree that, if broken, the norm-breaker must be punished. After all, if one person can arbitrarily break the law, why can’t everyone else? And once these norms as laws are violated by one and all, “the rule of law” breaks down and society erupts in violence.
Those aren’t norms or laws you or I understand as valid. But they did ‘keep the peace’ in that society. And collectively, the citizenry followed them as if they were just and proper.
Earlier today, Patrick Chovanec tweeted the following about Donald Trump:
The President of the United States is ranting online about civil war, enemies of the people, and executing traitors.
Stop pretending this is normal or okay, or just his impolite “way” of talking.
— Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) September 30, 2019
I retweeted it, immediately thinking of what I had read last night in Sapiens about norms and laws. Before Donald Trump became US President, the thinking inside the US was that the US had an obligation to set a standard that other nations could follow because, only in this way, could the US justify its role as ‘global cop’. The thinking had been that the US had to be a ‘Beacon on the Hill’ for freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Otherwise, why would anyone follow its dictates – except through force. ‘The law of the jungle’ – where anything goes and naked power and domination are the only rules – would reign supreme.
In my view, with Trump now facing impeachment, we are at a critical juncture. Impeachment is an existential threat to Trump’s Presidency. And he’s fighting back the only way he knows how – using any means necessary, norms and consequences be damned. By definition, that means breaking taboos, violating norms, and stepping over boundaries.
Now, Harari argued in his book that, if the CEO of French carmaker Peugeot stopped believing in Peugeot, it wouldn’t matter; Peugeot would continue to exist, so important is the collective subjective truth of everyone else about Peugeot. We would just consider the CEO insane. I want to challenge this thesis and use Trump as the example.
My view is different from Harari in that I believe what leaders say and do matter. They are norm-setters. They tell us all – at the margin – what we can and cannot get away with. Trump is telling us that the US President can talk about civil war, enemies of the people and executing traitors and that’s okay. He’s telling us that world leaders’ digging up dirt on political enemies using both the apparatus of the state and their own private connections is okay.
And the support Trump enjoys in making this calculus, while not a majority in the US, is pretty high. He certainly hasn’t seen any pushback from elected members of his party in Congress. So, clearly the message from elected US officials in his party is “this is all okay”. Any other world leader watching this and looking to change norms and assert greater executive power knows they can use Trump’s example as cover.
Let me make one last point here. Several weeks ago, it was revealed that Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, called then-US President Richard Nixon to complain about “monkeys from those African countries” who were thwarting Nixon’s efforts to expel Taiwan from the United Nations. We’ve never heard Reagan talk like that in public though. Why?
Here’s my answer: norms. If Reagan had said something like that publicly, he would have been condemned as a racist. Norms at the time wouldn’t have allowed him to get away with it. And likely, he would have felt shame as a result. But, that didn’t stop him from making those comments in private to the President of the United States.
By contrast, Donald Trump feels relatively unconcerned about breaking norms in public. In fact, he seems to relish doing so. He always has. As President of the United States, he should be held to a higher standard. The reason he gets away with it as President is that norms he is breaking are already eroded. So, if, at the margin, he takes it one step further, the pushback is minimal – and can easily be derided as partisan.
I believe what we’re seeing is the last breakdown in norms and the rule of law more generally – sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. And I believe ‘copycats’ are sure to follow Trump’s example – and perhaps take it one step further. The question now is whether we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I’m not so sure we can.
I try to avoid politics. But I can’t look away from the spectacle I’m seeing because I think we have a monumental crisis on our hands.
Thanks for reading.