Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Moral Normcore

“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.

Thanks. —GL


  1. Emerson said it well:
    "It is in vain you pretend that you are not responsible for the evil law because you are not a magistrate, or a party to a civil process, or do not vote. You eat the law in a crust of bread, you wear it in you hat and shoes. The Man- it is his attitude: the attitude makes the man."

    "Patience and patience, we shall win at the last."

    Great post, GL!

  2. "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."

    I was born in 1961 bought up by a hippie mother and military surgeon...until in the mid-60s, when my dad shipped off Vietnam, my folks divorced and I was left for periods of time to be raised by stoic, Midwestern protestant grandparents. People who had lived through the Great Depression and abhorred debt. In 1986, straight out of college (with a 2yr. divergence to play Army) I went to was work for HFC, the grandaddy of home equity lending and later incorporated into HSBC. I was there that in less than two weeks I realized I was working in Hell. They were teaching us to scour every single credit app for a home and then "up-selling" the borrower into home equity loans. No, no one had to take such a loan, but by and large the people who came through our doors were lower-middle class and didn't stand a chance against the commission-driven bullshit sleight-of-hand finance that was thrown at them. After a month I quit and went into "regular" banking. By then the racket had only gotten worse -- they were pitching the "home equity" spiel at teller windows. I left banking altogether in 1991 and went into what I thought was the "real" world of finance, investment management. It was there that I eventually came to understand what was truly happening in America, as Michael Lewis later alluded to in the Big Short. From the repeal of Glass-Stegall and the CFMA of 2000, to the ludicrous chopping of rates--16 times after 9/11, to the inevitable sub-prime debacle and fallout, I was telling anyone who would listen (cue the crickets and blank stares) what was coming. In the end it was like standing in a train yard amidst a hundred parallel tracks, every one of them with a locomotive hurtling down it. Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. And no one else was seeing it. These last three decades I've probably cut 15 years off of my life to the inner turmoil, stress, angst, booze, and anger.. Now with three young kids it's no better, and in some very tangible ways, it's much worse. Did any of my efforts make a difference? No, but then in the Big Picture, who the Hell are we kidding? I get you Gonzalo, I get what you've written regarding "Moral Normcore" but personally, I don't give a flying fuck anymore. The people, as Mencken once so succinctly put it, will get what they deserve, and they'll get it good and hard. The masses, from the Free Shit Army and People of Walmart, all the way to taxpaying Main St., will remain compliant right up until the bitter end. To paraphrase Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, "This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we're in, man! Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack!"

    Screw Modern Normcore. The complacent, chicken shit masses, the emasculating school system they support, the healthcare joke they passively accept, the crony capitalism they bow down to and buy into, screw all of it ad nauseum. They can have it all. Me? I'm as far a way from it as I can reasonably get, but in the end even that may not be far enough.

    1. You sir have written the best post I have read anywhere in a very,very long time! I wish I would have read it sooner. If you post anywhere else ever again I love to know.

      I feel your angst. My Great Depression/WW2 generation grandparents must be rolling in their graves at the mess we now live in. I myself don't even recognize the country I grew up in. Like you I don't give a flying fuck anymore. I wish I could have come to that realization 20 years earlier. Living in Brazil or anywhere far south of America always appealed to me but being much older and broker (thanks to the banksters ) this now seems out of reach.

      I don't see the world ending. When does America falters again I do see most of the world carrying on without us after the initial turmoil. When that happens is anyone's guess. I just hope I am not here when the next bubble bursts.

  3. I would be interested to understand what are the arguments against gay marriage?

    1. As a Christian, I argue that the end goal to gay marriage is to end marriage...to end the family. This may sound counterintuitive since it seems gay marriage IS marriage, and it seems to put together families. But the non-Christian typically does not want to listen to the prophetic, at least not the non-conspiratorial prophetic.

      "This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away" (2 Timothy 3:1-5 KJV).

      Marriage is a form of godliness. Gay marriage denies the power thereof. The time will come, I believe, when militant gays will turn against even those gays who marry, because the militant will be against even the FORM of godliness, which marriage is.

      This doesn't mean I am "against gays." Why, as a Christian, would I be any more against gays than I am against any other sin? I have argued with Christian and non-Christian alike, for example, that, if I cannot hire a gay person, then I cannot hire a sinner; and what good is it if a Christian says, "Oh, I'm not for the execution of gays," but that same Christian advocates denying gays housing, employment, health insurance, and any other service necessary to survive. Sure, I would say to that Christian, you may not support killing gays. You just want them to die on the street.

    2. Arguments against gay marriage? Are you serious? How about this:

      Sodomites are sexually deviant men with a psychological disorder which causes them to desire having foreign objects, including penises shoved into their feces-laden anuses. Lesbians are sexually deviant women with their own distinct psycho-sexual dysfunction. Together they comprise 1-2 percent of the population.

      Marriage is the fundamental social institution of civilization.

      Only an insane civilization would retool its fundamental social institution to cater to a tiny population of psychologically malformed sexual deviants (let alone allow them to adopt children).

      Does that answer your question?

    3. Darwinian theory imputes that the survival of the fit precludes a non-breeding population from persisting. Therefore, homosexuality is a choice as there could not be any persistent genetic potential for it.

  4. I subscribe to the Generational Dynamics view of this: that the problems will continue to fester, and morality continue to fall, until great Crisis Events befall us. A decade or two of turmoil, perhaps similar to the Great Depression and World War II, will regenerate civic cohesion and create a generation of survivors who swear that this will happen Never Again. Until that generation gets old and dies, then the cycle will repeat itself.

    If, that is, there are any survivors of World War III.

    1. You're on the right track, but I think you left out something about a dictator. When people have lost the tools needed to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, they will cry for a leader to tell them how to live.
      And I think the periodicity of the cycle will be seriously disrupted this time around.

  5. Gonzalo,
    Your postings are always thought provoking. I don't agree with you on the gay marriage issue. If some people are born this way I think they should be able to have legally binding and protected partnerships like straight people have. I don't think this will undermine marriage in the least. On the banking and social issues that you discuss, I agree with completely. We are all social animals who try to conform to what society is selling as normal at the present time. We all want to be unique, but no one wants to be odd. Announce at a party that you are a communist or an atheist, and you will get much more shit than if you stated you were gay. Tell your Democrat friends that Obama is a war-monger. Refuse to salute the flag. Tell friends that you think military people are war criminals. It's easy to find yourself ostracized or getting beat up by questioning what is considered sacred in our society. But there are times that we must stand up for what we believe, or we end up having our country descend into tyranny. And this may have happened and it's now too late. Over a million Iraqis are dead, yet how many Americans give a damn?

  6. Thought provoking post, GL. This will give me something to chew on for some time. Thanks for that. I mean it.

  7. I'll pass along a suggestion to me from my 20-something daughter: Sometimes we gain advantage by hiding in plain sight. NormCore certainly aids and abets that strategy! Morally, we may live to fight another day. As I understand writings of early Christian fathers, during a time when the teaching of "reincarnation" held sway, they strove mightily to dissuade those who insisted on setting for Rome as aspiring martyrs for a quick trip to the Kingdom of God. The strategy of early Christians -- quiet multiplication and persistence in virtue -- paid off. Perhaps that strategy will benefit us, as well.

  8. Finally, a label for this moral disease rotting our culture. I'm passing your very insightful little essay along.

    I've argued for years that being "nonjudgmental" is just a way of either being a hypocrite or being an empty-headed fool. Pick which one you are. A human being who has lost the capacity to make moral determinations is a dangerous animal.

    We may not agree with each other on all moral judgements but a noisy debate would be a hundred times better than this silent tyranny.

  9. .......or, in other words, PC taken to the logical conclusion?

    Once "Gay" marriage is the norm we will then see folks marrying their pets.

  10. EXCELLENT piece of writing!

  11. I agree that this is the prominent feature of western civilization nowadays. But isn't it just moral relativism all over again?


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