“Normcore” is a label for the current fashion trend of wearing undistinctive, unremarkable clothing—but the word itself is exploding across the American zeitgeist. Somehow, people sense that the word describes more than just fashion.
I agree: To me, the term “Normcore” seems to describes how we as individuals and as a society are facing up to—or rather, not facing up to—the excesses, distortions, injustices and perversions sprouting like weeds across the America landscape.
First, let’s define what we’re talking about: Fashion website Idol Eyes describes Normcore as “[an] understated, nondescript style. The desire to fit in rather than stand out.” Wikipedia defines it as “stylized blandness”. New York Magazine says that Normcore “[embraces] sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for ‘difference’ or ‘authenticity.’”
In other words, Normcore is situational conformity: The desire to not stand out in any given context. The pro-active effort to comply with and adhere to the dominant outlook of the group.
Understood in that sense—understood as the desire to conform, or to at least acquiesce to the norm of the group—the term “Normcore” describes contemporary American morality to a T.
Moral Normcore, to coin a phrase, is the desire to neither cause offense by expressing a difference in moral opinion, nor stand out by making a moral judgment about that which we think is clearly wrong. It is the “Not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that/No Judgment” moral outlook. It is to conform and acquiesce to actions, beliefs and statements of others which we find morally objectionable, if not outright wrong. It is timidity and silence in the face of moral transgressions, transgressions carried out by a vocal minority, or by the majority itself. Transgressions to which we object to—often virulently object to—often justifiably and rationally object to—but to which we remain silent, for fear of retaliation, or fear of being marginalized.
We see this every day. We experience this every day. We ourselves are guilty of Moral Normcore almost every day.
How many times have you nodded acceptance when some young woman you know insisted on “No judgment” as she described how she got drunk and blew three guys at a party last night? How many times have you heard some guy you know laugh as he described playing “Knockout” on a homeless man—and yet you refrained from saying anything because you didn’t think you had the moral right, and besides, none of your other friends were saying anything either? How many times have you seen your company maliciously screw over its customers—but kept quiet, while silently saying to yourself, “It’s a caveat emptor world, buddy, and besides it’s none of my business”? How many times have you learned how the government is violating a fundamental civil right—raping a Constitutionally guaranteed right—and yet you only shrugged as you turned away?
This is Moral Normcore: Keeping your mouth shut and your head down in the face of what you and most everyone else would consider morally wrong. Silently acquiescing to—and thus accepting—something which you know to be wrong or in fact evil, all for the sake of comforming, and not rocking the boat.
That’s why Moral Normcore matters: Because it is allowing the worst excesses and crimes in American history to flourish unchecked.
Take the immoral actions of the financial sector in the lead-up to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and the subsequent six years of malfeasance.
Everyone with even a passing knowledge of finance is aware that the banks committed egregious crimes, crimes which at any other time would have been unacceptable both to the public and to the authorities and even to the members of the financial industry itself. The list of transgressions of the financial industry is almost endless: From front-running clients via prop-trading desks; to making loans that the lenders knew would go bad and then selling these built-to-fail loans to unsuspecting institutional clients (which is essentially what caused the 2008 GFC); to falsifying mortgage documents; et cetera, depressing et cetera.
What the financial industry has been doing since at least 1998 up until the present can be characterized as dishonest—lawless—bad—immoral—wrong: Pick your favorite term of moral vilification.
However, the mainstream media and government bureaucrats, regulators and politicians—precisely those who have the closest and most direct knowledge of all the grotty, sordid wrongdoings—have studiously refrained from making any kind of moral judgment as to the actions of that financial industry. Far from muckraking and digging deep into the financial sector’s malfeasance, those journalists closest to the financial industry—Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times immediately springs to mind, though there are countless others as well—have been veritable cheerleaders of the financial industry. And those government bureaucrats and regulators with the most power over the financial industry—the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the SEC—have been most consistently opposed to prosecuting or even reining in or even censuring the vile and despicable excesses of the financial industry.
They have not called the actions of the financial industry “wrong”, or much less “immoral”. They have not made any effort to investigate or much less prosecute their illegalities. On the contrary, they have labeled the excesses of the financial industry as . . . actually, they haven’t given those excesses, immoralities, illegalities and depravities any name—because a label is a judgment.
So rather than label—and thus judge, which is a no-no in Moral Normcore—they have silently acquiesced.
The fact is, the more any journalist (such as the alt-fin media like Zero Hedge, naked capitalism, Max Keiser) or any politician (such as Elizabeth Warren, Alan Grayson, Ron Paul) articulates a negative moral judgment of the financial industry, and/or clamors for investigations, the more they are marginalized. They are called—and dismissed as—“judgmental”, “radical”, “unhinged”, “not-the-mainstream”, and finally “fringe”.
But that’s Moral Normcore for you: The closer you are to that which you consider morally objectionable, the less willing you are to identify it as such, until you finally come to believe that it is not morally objectionable at all.
In other words, Capture.
The example of the financial industry’s malfeasance, and the regulatory agencies’ failure to prosecute, punish or even investigate this malfeasance—indeed, the regulatory agencies’ acceptance that the financial industry’s actions were normal and perfectly justifiable—is a well-known brand of corruption known as Regulatory Capture.
But the term Moral Capture, to coin yet another term, in and of itself is helpful in understanding what happens under the aegis of Moral Normcore.
If Moral Normcore is the beginning state of silent acquiescence to those actions or statements that we find morally objectionable, then Moral Capture is the process by which we progress from silent acquiescence to acceptance and then finally to adoption of precisely those beliefs, actions and statements which we initially objected to on moral grounds.
A perfect example of this? Same-sex marriage.
A mere ten years ago, the vast majority of Americans—if asked—would have been staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage. The vast majority, again if asked, would have considered same-sex marriage evil, immoral, decadent, degenerate, absurd, disgusting, or otherwise wrong.
Today, that same vast majority of Americans—if asked—has not only acquiesced to same-sex marriage, they have embraced it. Make no mistake, the majority of Americans are fully behind it. The proof is that there is absolutely no serious protests to the judicial decisions that are clearing the way for same-sex marriage across the United States. In France—France!—some 200,000 people marched through Paris in protest against same-sex marriage last year, about 50,000 people in Lyon. Numbers that would be unimaginable in America.
That’s because the idea of same-sex marriage has Morally Captured the vast majority of Americans: Where once they were overwhelmingly against it, today they are overwhelmingly for it.
Why and how did this sea change happen? Simple, really: A vocal, tiny minority began to argue in favor of same-sex marriage, using the analogy that same-sex couples had just as much a right to marry as interracial couples. It’s a flawed analogy, but politically it was very effective.
The vast majority of Americans as recently as 2008 did not agree with same-sex marriage—but those rare people willing to break Moral Normcore on this issue failed to come up with a strong counter-argument; frankly most of their counter-arguments were flat-out stupid, or were perceived as homophobic. (Opposition to homophobia is itself an example of Moral Normcore that proceeded to Capture mainstream morality. Fifty years ago—even 25 years ago—dismissing homosexuals qua homosexuals was considered perfectly acceptable. Today it is not.)
“Gay people wanna get married? Fine by me, I don’t like it, but who am I to judge”: That, in a single sentence, was Moral Normcore with regards to same-sex marriage. Thus did the vast majority of Americans, when confronting the idea of same-sex marriage, acquiesce: The Moral Normcore notion of silent acquiescence to that which people disagreed with led the vast majority of Americans to say nothing in the face of same-sex marriage advocacy.
But then saying nothing against same-sex marriage quickly morphed into acceptance of same-sex marriage. And then acceptance became support.
How did this happen? How did acquiescence turn to acceptance turn to support? Simple: The need to belong.
What has to be understood about Moral Normcore and Capture is, the very act of acquiescing to a morally objectionable proposition makes a group seem to not only acquiesce to the proposition, but to actively support it. Silence is indeed consent. Since no one deliberately wants to be isolated from their social group, if a group as a whole acquiesces to something-or-other, then the individual members of that group conclude that the group as a whole supports that something-or-other—so they individually decide to support what they once might have considered morally objectionable, all for the sake of continuing to belong to the group.
This is how a proposition that a person might have disagreed with or even found morally unacceptable is finally accepted and embraced—this is Moral Capture: We, along with everyone else in our group, are obliged by way of Moral Normcore to keep our objections and our “judgment” to ourselves. As each of us in a group is silent—for fear of violating Moral Normcore’s dictum of “No Judgment”—our collective silence implies to each one of us that the group as a whole accepts and supports what we individually object to. So—for fear of being marginalized from our group—we accept and embrace a position that we never would have before.
And it’s easy, too: Since we never take a vocal moral stance—unequivocal moral stances being anathema to the blandness and conformity of Moral Normcore—it becomes easy to turn around and come out in favor of precisely what we were once privately, silently against. Look at President Obama: Wishy-washy in 2008, silent for several years, then all in favor of same-sex marriage today.
The financial industry and same-sex marriage proponents are not the only ones who have used Moral Normcore and subsequent Capture to make mainstream what was once morally fringe, if not disreputable, if not morally abhorent. The torture of prisoners by the American government, the loss of civil rights by the people, the NSA’s total surveillance of all communications, et cetera, depressing et cetera, are all products of Moral Normcore and Capture.
In all of these cases, Moral Normcore—that is, polite non-judgmental silence, moral conformity, an unwillingness to speak up against something we find morally objectionable and disturbing, bland moral “acceptance”—allowed tyrannical minorities to impose their points of view on a majority that initially found their actions, beliefs or statements immoral and wrong.
Because it is tyrannical minorities looking to justify horrendous immoralities who are the biggest fans of Moral Normcore. The individual and collective silence required by Moral Normcore is what allows tyrannical minorities to fester like cancers on the body politic, turning their radical immoralities into the acceptable mainstream. By way of Moral Normcore and Capture, the majority acquiesces in the face of the tyranny of the minority—to the entire society’s detriment.
Moral Normcore, it must be noted, is not moral apathy. It looks like it, but it’s not. Rather, Moral Normcore is a lack of moral self-confidence. A belief that, since everything is relative, and no one’s point of view is superior to anybody else’s, then no one’s moral judgment is superior to anybody else’s. In other words, no one has the moral high ground, because no one has the epistemic high ground.
This is obviously untrue—there are those who have the epistemic high ground on any particular issue, and thus can undisputably claim the moral high ground and make valid, sound moral judgments. Non-controversially, a certified chemist with modern training will be able to tell that the “magic snake-oil elixir” I’ve been sold for $1 million to cure my cancer and my impotence and my baldness is nothing more than castor oil—and thus will be able to make the valid, sound moral judgment that the snake-oil salesman who grifted me is nothing but a bad man.
But since the 1960’s, when the notion of a stable epistemology began to be undermined to the point of collapse, there are few people with the nerve to claim to know what is true and what is not. Thus fewer still who can claim to know what is right and what is wrong.
If nobody but fools and the marginalized can claim to know what is right and what is wrong, then nobody can make a sound moral judgment. They are reduced to non-judgmentally walking around on moral egg shells, constantly excusing themselves for their moral opinions, and recusing themselves from making a moral judgment whenever one is needed—especially when one is needed. Such as in the case of government torture and assassination. Such as in the case of banking industry wrongdoing. Such as in the case of [insert your favorite contemporary American outrage here].
Thus Moral Normcore. Thus Moral Capture. And it’s nothing new, by the way: The German people back in 1933 knew all about Moral Normcore. We at least are lucky enough to now have a name for it.
In another posting, I’ll discuss the consequences of violating Moral Normcore, and the consequences of the speed with which Capture can turn the moral landscape on its head.
If you liked this essay, be sure to check out my book of essays, When We Wave.