Law professor Cass Sunstein recently posted a draft of a new paper he’s working on. It’s called “Unleashed,” and it begins with a story. In the late 1980s, when Sunstein was a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, he saw an older male professor stroking the hair of a young female student who was talking to him.
“That was completely inappropriate,” he told the student afterward.
“It’s fine,” she reassured him. “He’s an old man. It’s really not a problem.”
Thirty minutes later, back in his office, Sunstein heard a knock at the door. It was the student, and she was sobbing. “He does this all the time,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
To Sunstein, this isn’t just a story about harassment. It’s a story about how power shapes what can and can’t be said. “Social norms imposed constraints on what the law student could say or do,” he writes. “She hated what the professor was doing; she felt harassed. But because of existing norms, she did not want to say or do anything. My little comment liberated her, at least in the sense that she felt free to tell me what she actually thought.”
Sunstein calls this phenomenon “unleashing,” and his paper is about the way it can trigger societal change. “Under the pressure of social norms, people sometimes falsify their preferences,” he writes. “They do not feel free to say or do as they wish. Once norms are weakened or revised, through private efforts or law, it becomes possible to discover preexisting preferences. Because those preferences existed but were concealed, large-scale movements are both possible and exceedingly difficult to predict; they are often startling.”
I’ve been thinking about Sunstein’s paper, and the way we are living through an era of unleashing, a lot lately. Over the past 24 hours, the New York Times published an explosive story detailing decades of sexual harassment by Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, and BuzzFeed published a blockbuster story detailing the way Breitbart built itself into a bridge between the white nationalist alt-right community and the Republican Party. Both of these stories, in their own ways, are examples of unleashing, and the way sudden expansions of what people are willing to say and do in public are rocking American society, for better and for worse. And that’s to say nothing of President Donald Trump: the unleasher-in-chief.
Why it took decades for Harvey Weinstein’s abuses to become public
The revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual harassment are all the more shocking because so many seem so unsurprised. His behavior was apparently an open secret — albeit one that no journalist, for decades, could confirm, despite the fact that many, many journalists tried. Weinstein had too much power, and sources were too loath to cross him. In a startling piece recounting her own troubling history with Weinstein, Rebecca Traister reflects on the break:
Weinstein, in a bizarre statement, makes almost the same argument. “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he wrote. “That was the culture then.” Weinstein appears to be trying to justify his behavior by saying that rampant sexual assault was the culture, which is a self-serving delusion. (To echo Jake Tapper’s rejoinder: My father came of age in that era, and he isn’t a sexual predator.) But he’s right that silence around sexual assault was much more culturally entrenched, and he benefited from that norm and did everything in his considerable power to sustain it.
As Traister writes, that norm is changing, and it’s led to an unleashing — against Cosby, against Ailes, against Trump, against Weinstein. Their testimony hasn’t necessarily led to just consequences for their accusers. Trump was elected president, and so far, Cosby was acquitted. But their testimony is changing the society in which they live; it is eroding the norm of silence that emboldens and protects predators.
Breitbart’s bridge to the alt-right
On Thursday night, BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein published a blockbuster story based on a cache of emails between key employees of the Trumpist website Breitbart detailed the way the organization used itself to launder alt-right ideas into the conservative mainstream. This, too, was an unleashing — a calculated, steady effort to expand the boundaries of acceptable political discourse and permit white supremacists to express themselves more freely in public.
Breitbart’s fans often felt themselves censored by standards of conduct, or prevailing sentiments, that forced them to suppress their true opinions. And so they expressed those opinions quietly, secretly, to Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos:
Yiannopoulos, meanwhile, was steadily using Breitbart to normalize the opinions of his correspondents, and to create more political and media space in which they could be unleashed. “A major part of Yiannopoulos’s role within Breitbart was aggressively testing limits around racial and anti-Semitic discourse,” writes Bernstein:
But Yiannopoulos was broadly successful in legitimizing the alt-right. As Bernstein writes, Breitbart’s guide to the alt-right “quickly became a touchstone, cited in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, CNN, and New York Magazine, among others. And its influence is still being felt. This past July, in a speech in Warsaw that was celebrated by the alt-right, President Trump echoed a line from the story.” That article, it turns out, was literally line-edited by some of the movement’s most outrightly racist figures.
Breitbart would soon develop a direct line to the Trump campaign and, ultimately, to the Trump presidency. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Trump himself is the unleasher-in-chief: His entire campaign was built on being powerful enough to say what should not be said, and thus creating space for others to say the same.
In his paper, Sunstein relates a study showing the effect Trump had. Two weeks before the election, a group of political scientists recruited 458 people from states Trump was certain to win for a study and given money to donate to an outrightly xenophobic nomination. Half were given the option to donate anonymously, and half weren’t. What the authors found was telling. Participants who didn’t know Trump was going to win their state tended to only authorize the donation if they believed it would be anonymous. But among people informed that Trump would definitely win their state, the preference for anonymity vanished. The message people were taking was clear: If Trump could be president, then xenophobia was more socially acceptable than they thought, and it could be expressed more openly than they’d realized.
Similarly, the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, was part of the post-Trump emboldening of the alt-right. The march was a function of Trump’s victory: If Trump could be president, and the CEO of Breitbart could have a West Wing office, then white supremacy could be expressed more openly, and more successfully, than the alt-right had realized. And Trump delivered on that promise, or tried to. When he subsequently spoke of the “very fine people on both sides” of the neo-Nazi march — a march in which a neo-Nazi murdered a counterprotester — that was the president of the United States explicitly making it more acceptable to express white supremacy in public.
Though free speech is constitutionally protected in America, there is always more lurking in the country’s psyche than can be safely, or politely, expressed. The laws around speech are broad, but the norms are narrower, and the norms govern much of what is actually said. Those norms are changing right now, for better and for worse.