The Breakdown of Norms

We have been complaining, and hearing complains, about the breakdown of norms. Certain groups claim that they are concerned with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) movements, with the apparent vulgarity in our television, or with the decaying sense of nationalism. The government generally responds to these concerns positively. The Minister of Research and Higher Education commented that LGBT movements are not welcome in college campuses. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission zealously censored virtually anything, including a person milking a cow and beauty contest participants wearing traditional dress.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But here is the problem whenever we talk about norms. We think that norms concern only the society whereas they actually also concern the government and the way it governs. To see why, we need to understand a state not only as a collection of actual people, legal rules, and institutions, but also a set of tradition, precedence, and unwritten conventions. Tradition, precedence, and conventions constitute the norms that govern the state. These norms, just as societal norms do, define what actions are appropriate or inappropriate and constrain the behavior of state actors such as president and legislators.

Norms take time to develop and even longer to internalize. Once they are established, they guide behaviors in such a way that is self-reinforcing. But they can be broken, too, either by one big dramatic action or multiple smaller erosive actions. Once a norm is broken by a certain action, it is more difficult to rebuild it because then the action that destroys the norm becomes a precedence for future actions.

Take military coup as an example. Indonesia has never experienced a coup (at least an overt one) and we should be grateful for it because it means that anyone who is thinking of staging a coup has to first overcome the psychological barriers of committing something that is both controversial and unprecedented. Compare this to countries with multiple coup experience. In these countries, past coups destroyed the norm of military neutrality. There is no norm that stops the military to forcefully seize power. It does not mean that these countries are doomed, however, because norms can be rebuilt. The more years have passed since the last coup, the less likely a country is to experience a future coup.

Let us consider another example how norms break down, this time through smaller erosive actions rather than one big dramatic act like a coup. We should look no further than Donald Trump in the U.S. election. Many think that Trump’s popularity despite him being a firebrand is a sudden phenomena; it is most certainly not. Trump is a product of a broken bipartisanship norm between the Republican and the Democratic Party.

His emergence is preceded by conservatives’ disappointment with Obama’s victory in 2008, Republicans’ staunch opposition to Obama’s healthcare policy, the rise of the Tea Party, and the Republican Party that becomes increasingly conservative, pro-Whites, and detached from women and minorities. Trump is where he is now because the Republican Party inadvertently prepared the stage for him by catering to a coalition of ideological voters who disavow compromise and bipartisanship.

From concerns about the breakdown of societal norms, to military coup, to Donald Trump, they all argue the same point: that it makes little sense to be zealous about societal norms and ignorant about political norms. When a public official stated that certain social groups may be discriminated against, or when the police yielded in to the demand of radical groups to cancel the leftist BelokKiri Festival, these actions not only betrayed equality before the law but also set the precedence and norms for future actions.

We might think that these examples are minor and do not reflect our commitment to democratic norms. The problem is, there will be no democratic norms to be committed to if we always make exceptions. It makes no sense to claim to be faithful to a greater idealism if one cannot be faithful in smaller things. Our experience with the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) should teach us a lesson. Since they were born, we kind of took them lightly. We let them raid restaurants during Ramadhan, because these were just small and isolated events, right? But one event led to another and at one point it just became the norm for the police to avoid a confrontation with them than enforcing the law.

Norms are not given. They are created through repeated choices. President Joko Widodo has done quite well with infrastructure development, but a potentially important legacy is yet to be attended to. He can start to nurture the norms that the state will protect all of its citizens regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, social orientation, or other social markers. It is more than enforcing the law; it is about setting precedents for future administrations. It is not easy to be the first, only the bold can do that.