At an event in Liverpool last week, I was asked by Steve Fuller about what I understood responsibility to mean in a sociological sense. He was sceptical that I could support claims of responsibility given my understanding of human agency as situationally performative but biographically continuous. In essence I understood him to be asking: do I think there’s something about the human being in relation to which responsibility can be assigned? This is a question I’d never really thought about explicitly, though once I began to I’ve realised that it actually knits together the full range of my interests.

Part of my difficulty with the question is that I think ‘responsibility’ encompasses a number of different things which we need to unpack:

  1. Responsibility as moral agency: how an individual comes, through internal and/or external conversation, to assume a stance of responsibility towards their own actions. To me it seems obvious that this is a matter of what Charles Taylor calls disengaged agency. It’s a mode of engagement with the world that usually involves stepping back from social encounters in order to reflect on one’s own actions within them, though I do believe sometimes we confront these questions when in the flow of the social situation.
  2. Responsibility as interpersonal ascription: how an individual comes, through social interaction, to be held accountable for their actions. This can, but by no means necessarily does, lead to the first sense of responsibility as moral agency. This is about social judgement, holding someone to account in terms of putatively shared standards in relation to which their behaviour can be evaluated.
  3. Responsibility as structural enforcement: how an individual comes to be formally held responsible for their actions, in relation to codified rules and regulations which are sufficiently durable to be both enforceable and recognised as binding. Legal systems are the obvious example of this but I’d include disciplinary proceedings within workplaces within this category as well. The point is the process is formalised and the rules are codified. It’s not tied to the social situation, a term I use in Goffman’s sense, in the same way as the earlier forms of responsibility.

These are interconnected in complex ways. But by analytically distinguishing between them, we’re able to recognise how they can vary independently. Under contemporary social conditions, I would argue that we have seen the following changes:

  1. People are more likely to over-actively exercise moral agency, often to the point of blaming themselves for personal outcomes that are systemically produced. This individualisation contributes to the fragmentation of normative consensus, as individual reasoning acts as a vector of deviance amplification: the more intensively people think about these things, through the filter provided by their own particularity, the less likely they are to straight forwardly reproduce ‘common sense’.
  2. The interpersonal ascription of responsibility is becoming more contentious because of this fragmentation of normative consensus. If we can’t take ‘common sense’ for granted, interventions of this sort will tend to be experienced as arbitrary impositions of power. This leave them experienced as something inherently contentious, which I’ve written about as the ‘paradox of incivility’: when consensus breaks down, attempts to enforce civility are actually experienced as rude and aggressive.
  3. ‘Common sense’ supplies the intuitions upon which enforcement is grounded. In its absence, normativity comes to seem less binding, incentivising alternative penalty-based enforcement that doesn’t attempt to seek grounding in moral agency. Margaret Archer describes this as ‘anormative regulation’ in an upcoming paper.

Having only recently grasped quite how interesting case law is, thanks to the conversation with Steve and Joseph, I’d now like to start to refine the outline I’ve sketched above and apply it to thinking through the challenges posed by emerging technologies.

I noticed an unfamiliar precondition placed at the end of this interesting call for papers on Story’s Place In Our Lives:

Inter-Disciplinary.Net believes it is a mark of personal courtesy and professional respect to your colleagues that all delegates should attend for the full duration of the meeting. If you are unable to make this commitment, please do not submit an abstract for presentation.

I’ve never seen this before and I’m not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, I applaud the sentiment because it is likely to mitigate against people turning up solely for their talk then leaving, as well as encouraging the synchronisation of attention during the event so that the conference might become a zone of strategic deceleration*. On the other hand, it seems almost Canute-like if we take seriously the proposition of the sociology of time that we live in a desynchronised society.

The demand that every speaker must participate for the full three days places synchronisation costs upon attendees which they will be unequally able to meet. The intersection of temporal autonomy with other systems of stratification is an incredibly complex topic which I’ve only recently begun to think seriously about. But I’m convinced that we need to take what Sarah Sharma calls chronopolitics seriously if we’re trying to adapt institutions to cope with the attentional pathologies generated by digital capitalism.

This isn’t a criticism of the policy itself. I applaud the sentiment and I’ll seriously consider implementing a policy like this at some of the events I organise myself in future. But I think there’s a complexity to this which needs to be seriously considered and my impression is that we still lack a politically adequate language within which to talk about these issues in terms of temporality. I’m worried that invoking notions of civility and collegiality without addressing the novel challenges of the accelerated academy could prove unintentionally regressive in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

*Not the pithiest phrase I’ve ever come out with but I think I’m getting at something important with it.

There was a strange and compelling article on Medium this week, reflecting on the author’s experience of being a devotee of Whole Foods, the self-certifying purveyors of ‘natural’ produce who will surely expand in the UK at some point. The author was at great pains to make clear how much he loves Whole Foods:

I’ve shopped at Whole Foods in every time zone, in at least 10 different cities: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, DC and Richmond, VA. I love Whole Foods. Scratch that, I love the products Whole Foods sells, no matter what other people might have to say about them. Maybe the simplest way to phrase it is, I love whole foods. Whole Foods as an experience, that’s a whole other matter.

But here’s what sucks for Whole Foods: it has nothing to do with their employees. Across the board, across the country, they have been helpful, knowledgeable, and cordial. I’ve received phenomenal service in every department: from the beer fridge to the butcher counter to the bulk aisle. I now know everything there is to know about lentils, for instance, thanks to a guy stocking roma tomatoes in the produce section of the downtown Milwaukee store, who took the time to explain why he used red lentils for his curried lentil dish a couple nights before.

But there was one problem: the other customers. These customers are “across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable”. Do you pity this poor author who is forced to brave “a sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers” every time he wants to purchase his favourite lentils? I certainly do. Imagine having to cope with a supermarket where people block the aisles:

They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?

If you are a normal human being, when you come upon a person like this in the aisle you clear your throat or say excuse me, hoping against hope that they catch your drift. They don’t. In fact, they are disgusted by your very existence. The idea that you would violate their personal shopping space—which seems to be the entire store—or deign to request anything of them is so far beyond the pale that most times all they can muster is an “Ugh!”

Over the years I have tried everything to remain civil to these people, but nothing has worked, so I’ve stopped trying. Instead, I walk over to their cart and physically move it to the side for them. Usually, the shock of such an egregious transgression is so great that the “Ugh!” doesn’t happen until I’m around the corner out of sight. Usually, all I get is an incredulous bug-eyed stare. Sometimes I get both though, and when that happens, I look them square in the eye and say “Move. Your. Cart.” I used the same firm tone as Jason Bourne, with the hushed urgency of Jack Bauer and the uncomfortable proximity of Judge Reinhold. From their reaction you’d think I just committed an armed robbery or a sexual assault. When words fail them, as they often do with passive aggressive Whole Foods zombies, the anger turns inward and they start to vibrate with righteous indignation. Eventually, that pent up energy has to go somewhere, and like solar flares it bursts forth into the universe as paroxysms of rage.

Outside the four walls of a Whole Foods, you might recognize these people as Gawker commenters or Twitter shamers. Inside, they are the breathless, self-important shoppers who just can’t believe!! that it’s taking this long to check out. They are busy, they have somewhere to be. Don’t these people in the other six open checkout lanes that are each 3 shoppers deep understand that, WTF??!?

Or you might recognise these people as Medium bloggers. Hmm. The anecdote which occupies the rest of the article is very funny and definitely worth reading. But what interested me was the apparently complete failure of self-awareness exhibited by this otherwise perceptive writer. He is an angry Whole Foods devotee who regards everyone in the store as beneath contempt, accosts people threateningly in the isles and then goes home to let the internet know what rude assholes he has had to negotiate while shopping for his much needed organic food.

What interests me is the incivility with which he acts while nonetheless understanding himself as fighting to preserve civility. Squaring up to someone, aiming for “uncomfortable proximity” in order to “look them square in the eye and say ‘Move. Your. Cart.” isn’t civil behaviour. It just isn’t. So his response to the problem of incivility within Whole Foods actually contributes to it, seemingly without the author having stopped to ponder whether one of the people he threatens in the aisles might go home and blog about how rude Whole Foods customers are.

What’s really going on here? It’s not that there aren’t any endorsed and enforced norms about bodily comportment within public space. Clearly, there are many potential acts which would be roundly condemned and which would provoke an intervention by security (though it’s worth considering the relationship between interpersonal norms and the institutional structure in such instances). But this assembly of norms applicable to the social space is much fuzzier when we move away from absolute prohibition. If someone acts to enforce a norm (e.g. asks you to stop talking on your phone in the quiet zone of a train) and you endorse that norm (e.g. you felt you shouldn’t answer your phone but didn’t want to get up and leave the carriage) then their action has a normative force which it otherwise wouldn’t. This is what makes the difference between someone hanging up their phone at this point and blithely continuing to talk or even telling the complaining party to go fuck themselves.

When someone acts to enforce a norm which they endorse but others don’t, it is experienced as an arbitrary intervention or assertion of power. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily opposed, given an overriding concern to sustain the peacefulness of the interaction, only that the phenomenology of the interaction is different. I’ve been shushed in a restaurant: at which point we did restrain the volume but, at least in my case, only to avoid a conflict rather than because I felt we’d violated a norm about proper comportment within the social space.

What interests me about the Whole Foods example is how the author would be perceived by one of the “sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers” he shoves past in the isle. It’s apparent to him that he’s acting to enforce a norm but presumably the norm is neither endorsed or even perhaps recognised by the offending party. Therefore, he’ll just seem very rude. What I’m pretentiously calling the paradox of civility is the necessity that norms of civility be both endorsed and enforced within a social space in order for action which enforces civility to avoid contributing to incivility. If the norms being acted upon aren’t widely endorsed then acting upon them will contribute to incivility no matter how justified the enforcing party believes themselves to be. People who complain about incivility and then act in this way are actually contributing to the very problem which so troubles them.  

An interesting story went viral in the last couple of days which has left me thinking about the issue of normativity for the first time in a while. I have no way to know the accuracy of the reports but that’s irrelevant. If it turns out not to have happened in this way then this account can function equally well as a thought experiment. The extract below is from the Telegraph’s account of what happened. Kudos to whoever chose this title for the post: “A hipster humiliates a ‘dying’ middle-aged woman on a flight. Twitter applauds”.

Elan, like lots of Americans, caught a plane at Thanksgiving, and the plane was delayed. A few rows behind him, a middle-aged woman overshared about her fear of missing her family time with the passing staff. Now, we’ve all come across these people. There’s one on every flight. They’re a pain in the neck, but anyone with a modicum of maturity might have reminded themselves that people who are behaving like this are usually compensating for something else – fear of flying, for instance, or distress of another sort – and quietly tutted to themselves.

But not our hero. No, he was made of sterner stuff. Elan took it personally, and shared his disdain with his Twitter followers.

“Her family is very important to her, she says. Her family has a special recipe for stuffing. She needs to be there to help. It is crucial.”

“She had to sit down because we took off. She has been muttering ‘about DAMN time’ and I can hear her breathing from 5 rows back.”

After a while, sharing his disgruntlement with Twitter was not enough and he decided that punishment was the way forward. So Elan enlisted the help of a male staff member and sent her a glass of wine with a note. “[This] is a gift from me to you,” it read. “Hopefully if you drink it you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk.” Oh Elan! Your rapier wit!

Emboldened – or perhaps frustrated; it must be awful when such an act of naked courage goes unacknowledged – by his fellow passengers’ failure to respond, Elan set forth, armed only with two miniature bottles of vodka, to slay the dragon.

“Oh my God I did it I walked as if I was going to the bathroom and I leaned over and put them on her tray table and walked away Oh my God.”

“She just stared at me like REALLY hard. I’m not going to lie I am shaking.” You betcha, Elan! We’d all be shaking if we’d just taken on a woman in “mom jeans and a studded belt”. You’re, like, Maximus in the Colosseum!

But then things got scary. Diane (for such was her name) had the temerity to call him “an awful person with no compassion”’, on a page torn from a lined notebook. No compassion! The cheek of it.

So he responded the way that only a true man can. He composed another note. “I hate you very much. Eat my d***.”

Wow, Elan! Touché! High five! Though presumably, as you were in the air, you might have had to ignore the seatbelt signs for her to do this.

Anyway, the upshot was that, after a bit more penis-related badinage, Diane gave Elan a slap in the face and he ran away, crying.

What interests me here is the role played by norms in the unfolding of these events. The story’s virality likely flows from the dramatically conflicting norms concerning behaviour on a plane which are being acted upon here. It’s compelling because we recognise on some level that this normative dissensus exists in society, particularly when it comes to conventions, but rarely does it manifest itself behaviourally in quite so dramatic a fashion. Elan clearly sees the woman in question as contravening apparently obvious norms of comportment when flying. The woman’s ‘oversharing’ and breathing (!) were impinging upon his experience of the flight and, in her failure to restrict her audial impact on those around her, she was acting contrary to Elan’s understanding of how people should conduct themselves when crammed into an overcrowded plane with many fellow passengers.

Though I’m generally critical about the concept of norm circle put forward by Dave Elder-Vass, it’s often struck me as a useful tool to make sense of behaviour like this. In essence he talks about the role played by an awareness of others being committed to a norm in engendering our own tendency to act in accordance with that norm. He sees this as a matter of endorsing and enforcing a given norm – we learn from past experience that acting in a way that contravenes X will tend to provoke sanctions and, through doing so, we come to endorse X and habitually act in accordance with it.

I’m not keen on this as an account of the genesis of normative behaviour. However I do think Elder-Vass captures something important about the social psychology of interactional norms when he further distinguishes between proximal, imagined and actual norm circles. The proximal norm circle are those people endorsing and enforcing a norm whom we have directly encountered. Though limited in number, we take them to be representative of a wider group: the imagined norm circle is the dispersed group who we imagine to endorse and enforce a given norm. The actual norm circle is the objective extension of endorsement and enforcement of a norm. There are a lot of problems with this account. But what I find useful about it is the distinction between the imagined and the actual in making sense of the social psychology at work in a public transport situation. Whenever we act to enforce a norm we do so on an understanding, implicit or explicit, as to the existence of a wider circle who share the endorsement which motivates our action. We also often choose not to enforce norms which we nonetheless endorse. My point here, which I’m not sure is the same as EV’s, is a claim about the phenomenology of norm enforcement – acting because we think X is wrong is unavoidably tied up in (potential) questions about the agreement or disagreement of others with our stance.

My examples for this always come back to the quiet zone on trains – the spaces where mobile phone use is prohibited. There’s a variability in the extent to which train staff seek to display their endorsement of this rule (by announcing it) or to enforce it (by actually intervening when people use mobiles). There’s also variability in the extent to which people recognise the norm in question (some clearly don’t), the extent to which they feel bound by it (for example if they were forced into the carriage by overcrowding) and the extent to which other passengers feel willing or able to enforce a norm. Next time you’re in this situation, watch other people’s behaviour when someone starts talking loudly on a mobile: there’s all manner of performative expressions of endorsement of the quiet zone norm which are entirely distinct from actually seeking to enforce it. I have no way to prove this empirically but I’d suggest, on the basis of observation and theoretical reasoning, that someone is much more likely to seek to enforce the no mobiles rule if other passengers are noticeably performing their endorsement of the norm e.g. rolling their eyes, irritated coughing noises etc.

My point is that the endorsement/enforcement and proximal/imagined/actual distinctions are useful for making sense of these kinds of interpersonal disputes. I’ve suggested that Elan’s behaviour was at root a matter of enforcing a norm which he endorsed and saw Diane as contravening. He clearly felt empowered to act in ways which, from other perspectives, seem to contravene far more important norms of interpersonal behaviour. It’s this swagger (real or fictitious) which I want to understand and I suspect twitter plays a role. The intuition I had this morning when reading this story is that twitter expands the imagined norm circle. When we complain on Twitter about someone we physically share space with, we’ll often receive what can seem like tacit endorsements of our complaints (responses, retweets, favourites). Perhaps more importantly I suspect that silence is seen as, at best, indifference to what we’re saying and, at worst, tacit endorsement of our irritation: we imagine that our twitter followers agree with us. As a proposal about twitter etiquette I’d therefore suggest: if someone is live tweeting their travel frustration and they’re being out of order then say so! As this dynamic becomes much more common I wonder if twitter could have a real effect on people’s tendency towards intolerance on public transport.