Thursday, June 27, 2013

The New Normal

One of the fascinating by-products of world-wide media reporting, particularly TV reporting, is the “institutionalization” of all kinds of changing behaviors. Seeing what others are doing motivates some viewers to do the same things: after all, TV coverage in a way sanctions what it carries: it is reported, therefore important. Those engaged in the behavior achieve visibility. Secondary phenomena, e.g. the formation of activist groups, say, by people who’ve lost children to mass shootings in a school, are also at least temporarily publicized. What advocates say, how they behave, become models for others. Thus unusual events become usual; when the next one arises, patterns of reaction are already present, ready to be imitated.

Riotous public assemblies of the Arab Spring variety, mass killings and their aftermaths, and the appropriate ways to handle celebrity scandals or natural and man-caused disasters (hurricanes, floods, oilspills) are relatively new symptoms of cultural collapse that are now becoming routine, meaning institutionalized. Work teams are formed, procedures are perfected, checklists get prepared. When the next one threatens, everyone is ready—not least the media.

Less noted are broader movements taking place more slowly. But institutionalization is at work in those areas as well. They take the form of naming a phenomenon and repeating the name endlessly until the troubling matter, once unusual, becomes familiar, indeed routine—and the status of those affected solidifies into a kind of “things as they now are.” One example is the single-parent household. In 1980 19.5 percent of all households were single-parent households; in 2008, 29.5 percent were single-parent (source). Or take childbearing by unmarried women. In 1980 18.4 percent of all children were brought into the world by unmarried women; in 2010 it was 40.8 percent (source). Some speak of “life-style choice,” others of “poverty.” Whatever the cause of this very odd slide from traditional arrangements, institutionalization smoothes out the rough edges in an age where the only value system is that of broad public acceptance.

In the coverage of the Supreme Court’s rulings on two gay-marriage cases yesterday, I noted with raised eyebrows the use of a new phrase by pro-gay proponents. It was “The right to marry.” No qualifiers added. The process of institutionalization at work. Aha! I muttered. Here is a change—soon to be on every lip. But it is a curious phrase in a day and age when marriage, at least as it was once defined, is clearly if only slowly heading toward obsolescence—at least as measured by statistics.

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