Cass Sunstein delivers the 2018 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, “Unleashed: #MeToo and Beyond”

Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
by Mitchell Berman

Watch the full lecture here: (link is external)

Men did not start sexually harassing women in the fall of 2017.  Why did the Me Too movement spring up just then?  And why did it have (as it appears) such a rapid and broad impact on revising social norms?  More generally, why is social change so hard to predict, and why does it happen so rapidly?  These were the central questions explored by Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, and founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School, in his spring 2018 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, “Unleashed: #MeToo and Beyond.”

    The start of an answer, Sunstein argued, is to distinguish two mechanisms by which destabilization of existing social norms can produce significant social change.  By the first, the erosion of social norms “unleashes” people to reveal their pre-existing beliefs and preferences, and thus to speak and act as they previously would have but for the now-eroded norms’ constraining effects.  To a substantial extent, Sunstein explained, this is the story of #MeToo, at least from the perspective of the victims of harassment: vast numbers of individual women who had ostensibly shrugged off abusive and demeaning male behavior, perhaps by observing that “boys will be boys” or that “harmless old men” should be humored and indulged, forcefully insisted that it had not been okay all along.

The second mechanism or “phenomenon” involves revisions of norms that successfully construct new preferences and values, without unleashing much that had already been lurking under the surface.  The anti-smoking movement is one likely example: relatively few non-smokers had been secretly seething against smoking before norm entrepreneurs successfully persuaded many that they should be.  For a second, more complicated, example, Sunstein offered a recent successful campaign led by black students at Harvard Law School (echoing broadly similar campaigns elsewhere) to remove from the Harvard Law School seal elements that came from the family crest of an 18th-century slaveholder who endowed the school’s first professorship.  It’s at least plausible, Sunstein observed, that “the students there were not alarmed about the seal until alarm about the seal caught fire.”  

If changes in social norms can be produced both by unleashing and by construction, what are the differences?  Plainly, it’s ordinarily easier to unleash changes in social norms than to construct them.  In the first type of case, “the conditions are ripe for rapid social change by virtue of the fact that people have self-silenced.”  In the second type, would-be norm entrepreneurs must produce and disseminate beliefs or values that were not already widely held.  

But Sunstein cautioned against exaggerating the differences.  For one thing, in both types of case, the social adoption of a norm progresses non-linearly.  Whether a new norm wins widespread acceptance or quickly dies may depend entirely upon the happenstance of whether it just reaches, or just falls short of, a threshold for acceptance held by a very small number of individuals. That’s how cascades work.  Furthermore, these two mechanisms are ideal types, and most actual cases—from Brexit to the rise of xenophobia under Trump—involve elements of both.  That’s true even of the Me Too movement itself insofar as it has caused men who perpetrated sexual harassment or condoned to internalize new norms.

More fundamentally, Sunstein emphasized, it is very hard to know when conditions are suitable for unleashing: “For both insiders and outsiders it will often be difficult to distinguish between situations in which norms are internalized and situations in which they merely seem to be. That is one reason that stunning surprises are inevitable.”  Accordingly, one possible lesson of this stimulating and wide-ranging lecture, and the rich question-and-answer period that followed, is that scholars seeking to better understand the mechanics of social norm change are increasingly arming themselves with valuable tools, but face a long distance still to travel.