The CDC grabbed headlines recently for suggesting that we prepare for an imminent zombie apocalypse. The self-admitted tongue-in-cheek campaign was meant to bring attention to their very real recommendations to have emergency supplies on hand, be prepared with emergency evacuation routes and such. Nice PR idea.
It made me think about something that’s nearly as scary — a social norm apocalypse. What would happen if a lot of people stopped living by the social norms that have emerged and evolved to help guide our behavior and give us a sense of right and wrong?
It could get ugly. Some reasonable depictions of this exists in the countless zombie genre movies. Many of those shows end up being more about how the few remaining humans get along with each other when the game has changed.
Isolated incidents of crime are social norm failures that could turn into outbreaks. Thankfully, our social norms usually kick in to minimize the spread. Certainly, we grant authority to law enforcement to maintain social order when all else breaks down, but we often play a key role ourselves by following generally accepted behavior, teaching our kids to do the same and reinforcing good behavior with something as simple as a smile.
It makes me feel better when groups of private citizens organize after a crime wave to call for end to it. Just as a smile can positively reinforce good behavior, shame can minimize bad behavior. If you haven’t altered your behavior in response to shame, then you could be a sociopath.
Major social norm failure outbreaks have occurred numerous times in recorded and unrecorded history. Give it some thought and you can probably think of a few.
It’s interesting and educational to think about what happened in those times and places that caused social norms to breakdown with such widespread and disastrous results.
In many cases, you will find that power had concentrated into a single point of failure and it took enough authority to override the social norms.
That characteristic is present even in isolated crime incidents. Murder is nothing more than the murderer taking absolute authority over another life and choosing to override the social norm against murder. Likewise for stealing.
At least in a zombie apocalypse, most of us wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with the ensuing breakdowns in social order.