Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for December 28th, 2017

Unwritten Rules, Social Norms, and You

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Folks, recently I read a book by Mike Duncan called THE STORM BEFORE THE STORM. It was about the fall of the Roman Republic, which preceded the fall of the Roman Empire…and about the various things that happened that caused the Roman Republic to fall.

Something called Mos Maiorum had been followed up until that time, you see. Those were the unwritten rules and social norms that every Roman professed to follow, and none seriously transgressed until things started to fall apart. These were especially important for Roman politicians, as they dictated how often you ran for office, how long you should stay there in some cases, whether or not you should run again, and what you should do while you actually were in office (including treating other office-holders with respect rather than disdain, whether you liked those people or not).

This rang true with me in our contemporary American society, because it was the breakdown of the unwritten rules of the Mos Maiorum that led to the rise of Roman demagogues, who exploited rising economic inequality for fun and profit…and that is what we’re seeing right now, at least in part.

Mind, by the time a demagogic politician takes command, those rifts are already there for him (or in some cases, her) to exploit. The loss of the unwritten rules of conduct everyone is supposed to follow may seem negligible, but we saw it play out in the 2016 Presidential election, where Donald Trump refused to release his taxes (as every other politician had done for many years), criticized many people (including those in his own party) and called decorated war heroes such as Arizona Senator John McCain unimportant (because hey, Trump only likes people who weren’t captured). Trump even complained about a Gold Star family — that is, a family who lost a loved one while serving the United States as a military member — which is something I couldn’t have imagined anyone doing for any reason before 2016.

Mind, as in the fall of the Roman Republic, some pols still do follow the unwritten rules. (For example, Hillary Clinton released her taxes, and while she certainly criticized Trump — and he returned the favor, in spades — she did not go after anyone outside of the campaign. She left Scott Baio alone, Kid Rock alone, and any other celebrity or personage that expressed a strong affection for Trump strictly alone as far as I could discern.)

So it’s not an exact science, no. But I am still struck by the parallels.

When the civil discourse breaks down, it’s hard to remember that we all need to pull together. And that sort of division can be exploited by anyone with demagogic leanings, which is why we all need to educate ourselves as best we can, read widely (and not just to our own political leanings), and challenge our assumptions as that is the best way to deal with demagoguery I know.

That all being said, people may still prefer the demagogue in the future. I can’t do anything about that. But what I can ask you to do is to please, please, for the love of little green apples, do your homework. Vote for someone who represents you and your interests as closely as possible…but yes, someone should stick up for the unwritten rules of civil discourse and most importantly civility in politics, too, lest we follow the Roman Republic into oblivion.

That way, it’s less toxic to watch. And we may stay better-informed.