• Opinion
  • April 26, 2019
  • 17 minutes
  • 1

How change happens: #MeToo, gay rights and the politically correct

Opinion: Cass Sunstein on norms, law, nudges and social change

This excerpt is taken from a new book, How Change Happens, by Cass R. Sunstein. Sunstein is a former administrator at the White House Office of Information under Obama, and the current Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he founded and directs the Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy. 

A few decades ago, I testified in Congress about President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the US military, but only on condition that they did not disclose their sexual orientation.

After my testimony, a member of Congress came up to me and said to me, with evident nostalgia, “In my day, we didn’t have any homosexuals.” He paused and added, “Well, maybe we had one. There was a guy who lived by himself, up on a hill.”

How does social change happen? One answer points to the role of social norms, which can be both powerful (in the sense that they greatly affect behaviour) and fragile (in the sense that they can collapse in a short time). If norms lead people to silence themselves, a status quo can persist — even if some or many people hate it, and even if those who seem to support it are actually pretty indifferent to it.

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One day, someone challenges the norm. Maybe it’s a child who says that the Emperor has no clothes. Maybe it’s a guy who lives by himself, up on a hill. After that small challenge, others may begin to say what they think. Once that happens, a drip can become a flood.

Most of us live, at least some of the time, in accordance with norms that we abhor. We might not think about them; they are part of life’s furniture. But in our heart of hearts, we abhor them.

The problem is that none of us can change a norm on our own. To be sure, we can defy a norm, but defiance comes at a cost, and it may end up entrenching rather than undermining existing norms.

viWhat is needed is some kind of movement, initiated by people who say that they disapprove of the norm, and succeeding when some kind of tipping point is reached, by which time it is socially costless, and maybe beneficial, and maybe even mandatory, to say: Me Too.

Most of us live in accordance with norms that we abhor

That’s a stylised version of what has happened with respect to sexual orientation in many nations. But the same dynamics help capture a host of social movements, including those that involve Catholicism, the French Revolution, the creation of Israel, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the collapse of the Soviet Union, disability discrimination, age discrimination, animal rights, the rise of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Brexit, nationalism, white supremacy, and the abolition of slavery.

These movements are of course different in important ways. Some of them are unambiguously good, while others are harder to evaluate, and still others are deeply troubling. But in all of them, suppressed beliefs and values, including suppressed outrage, started to get some oxygen. Once they did, change was inevitable.

It was also hard or perhaps impossible to anticipate those social movements. A central reason is that because people falsified their preferences, individuals did not know what their fellow citizens actually thought. In the face of preference falsification, the circumstances are right for unleashing social change — but because preferences are falsified, few people may be aware of that fact.

Another reason for the unpredictability is the overriding importance of social interactions. For change to occur, interactions need to produce, at just the right times and places, a growing sense that an existing norm is vulnerable, and that may or may not happen. Serendipity might be crucial. Who talks to whom at the right point? What is covered in the right newspaper? Who retweets what, and exactly when?

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Science fiction writers like to explore “counterfactual history” — historical arcs in which the South won the Civil War, Hitler devoted his entire life to painting, John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, or Donald Trump decided to ramp up his real estate activities rather than to run for president.

At their most intriguing, counterfactual histories emphasise small shifts (or nudges) that produced massive changes; they make it plausible to think that with a little push or pull, whole nations might have ended up looking radically different.


In the late 1980s, when I was a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, I happened to pass, in the hallway near my office, a law student (female) speaking to an older law professor (male).

To my amazement, the professor was stroking the student’s hair. I thought I saw, very briefly, a grimace on her face. It was a quick flash. When he left, I said to her, “That was completely inappropriate. He shouldn’t have done that.” Her response was dismissive: “It’s fine. He’s an old man. It’s really not a problem.”

When norms start to collapse, people are unleashed

Thirty minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. It was the student. She was in tears. She said, “He does this all the time. It’s horrible. My boyfriend thinks I should make a formal complaint, but I don’t want to do that. Please — I don’t want to make a fuss. Do not talk to him about it and do not tell anyone.” (What I did in response is a tale for another occasion.)

Social norms imposed constraints on what the law student could say or do. She hated what the professor was doing; she felt harassed. After hearing my little comment, she felt free to tell me what she actually thought. But because of existing norms, she did not want to say or do anything.

I am interested here in two different propositions. The first is that that when norms start to collapse, people are unleashed, in the sense that they feel free to reveal what they believe and prefer, to disclose their experiences, and to talk and act as they wish. (Bystanders can of course be important here.)

New norms, and laws that entrench or fortify them, may lead to the discovery of preexisting beliefs, preferences, and values. The discovery can be startling. In various times and places, the women’s movement has been an example. The same is true for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the movement for LGBT rights, and the disability rights movement. It is also true for the pro-life movement.

The second is that revisions of norms can construct preferences and values. New norms, and laws that entrench or fortify them, can give rise to beliefs, preferences and values that did not exist before. No one is unleashed. People are changed. Something like this can be said for the antismoking movement, the rise of seatbelt-buckling, and the rise of Nazism.

Begin with the phenomenon of unleashing. When certain norms are in force, people falsify their preferences or are silent about them. As a result, strangers and even friends and family members may not be able to know about them. People with certain political or religious convictions might just shut up.

Once norms are revised, people will reveal preexisting preferences and values, which norms had successfully suppressed. What was once unsayable is said, and what was once unthinkable is done.

Law often plays a role in fortifying existing norms or in spurring their revision

In the context of sexual harassment, something like this account is broadly correct: Women disliked being harassed, or even hated it, and revision of old norms was (and remains) necessary to spur expression of their feelings and beliefs. (This account is incomplete, and I will complicate it.)

Law often plays a significant role in fortifying existing norms or in spurring their revision. Part of the importance of judicial rulings that forbid sexual harassment is that they contributed to the revision of norms.

The election of a new leader or the enactment of new legislation can have a crucial and even transformative signalling effect, offering people information about what other people think. If people hear the signal, norms may shift, because people are influenced by what they think other people think.

But some revisions of norms, and some laws that entrench those revisions, do not liberate anything. As norms begin to be altered, people come to hold, or to act as if they hold, preferences and values that they did not hold before. Revisions of norms, and resulting legal reforms, do not uncover suppressed desires; they produce new ones, or at least statements and actions that are consistent with new ones.

Politically correct

Consider in this regard the idea of “political correctness,” which is standardly a reference to left-leaning social norms, forbidding the expression of views that defy the left-of-centre orthodoxy and so silencing people.

Political correctness means that people cannot say what they actually think; they are forced into some kind of closet. (The very term should be seen as an effort to combat existing norms. Part of the cleverness of the term is that it describes those who follow certain views as cowardly conformists, rather than people who are committed to hard-won principles.)

That is often what happens. On many university campuses, those who are right of centre learn to shut up. What a terrible lesson: they are leashed. But in other environments, the norms are different, and they can say what they think. Sometimes their friends and associates are surprised, even stunned: “Does he really think that? I had no idea.”

In the educational setting, one problem is that left-of-centre students will have no idea about the actual distribution of views within the community. They might think that everyone thinks as they do.

When people say what they actually think, large-scale changes might occur

Another problem is that people will be less able to learn from one another. And when people say what they actually think, large-scale changes might occur.

I taught at the University of Chicago Law School in the early 1980s, when a group of terrific students created the Federalist Society, an organisation dedicated to the exploration and defence of conservative views about the American legal system. The Federalist Society has had a massive effect on American political and legal life because it creates a kind of forum, or enclave, in which people can say what they think.

But whether left or right, political correctness can go beyond the suppression of views. It can also reconstruct preferences and values, making certain views unthinkable (for better or for worse). If some view is beyond the pale, people will stop expressing it. Eventually the unthinkable might become unthought. Is that chilling? Sometimes, but sometimes not; it is not terrible if no one thinks pro-Nazi thoughts.

A stunning study of the power of political correctness comes from Saudi Arabia. In that country, there remains a custom of “guardianship,” by which husbands are allowed to have the final word on whether their wives work outside the home. The overwhelming majority of young married men are privately in favour of female labour force participation. But those men are profoundly mistaken about the social norm; they think that other, similar men do not want women to join the labor force.

When researchers randomly corrected those young men’s beliefs about what other young men believed, they became far more willing to let their wives work. The result was a significant impact on what women actually did. A full four months after the intervention, the wives of men in the experiment were more likely to have applied and interviewed for a job.

The best reading of this research is that because of social norms, men in Saudi Arabia are in a sense leashed, and as a result, their wives are leashed as well. Most young men privately support female labour force participation, but they will say what they think, even to their own wives, only after they learn that other young men think as they do.

It is fair to say that after the researchers revealed what young men actually thought, both men and women ended up more liberated.—Cass R. Sunstein. 

The book “How Change Happens” was published in April 2019 by MIT press. Cass R. Sunstein is the author of several books, including Nudge (2008) and Simpler: The Future of Government (2013). 

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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