People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do.
And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.
So, no. The fact that you’ve replaced that picture of yourself mugging for the camera with a red square and an equal sign will not cause Justice Kennedy to bang his gavel or stomp his foot and say that he’s come to a final decision on the matter, and that it’s all because of your new profile picture. Changing your Facebook image will not have a direct impact on our legislation.
But a widespread descriptive norm implying that it is socially acceptable to advocate for same-sex marriage and that most people in contemporary American society seem to be pro-marriage-equality? Now that just might.
Way back in the day, I remember reading a newsletter from the people behind Vegan Outreach, in which they outlined their plan for the veganization of the world. You see, if each person reading this could simply convince five other people to become vegan, and then each of those five people could convince five more apiece, well, you get the idea. The whole world would be vegan by the year such-and-such. Of course, the obvious objection that even I was able to articulate at the time was that, in real life, most people’s social circles are tightly constrained enough so that without some seriously die-hard witnessing to hostile audiences, most of these activists were just going to end up talking to each other. The circles expand outward to a certain point, and then the walls just become higher.
The Spleen: What? What are you talking about? You lifted a bus once!
The Blue Raja: Yes, precisely! That story’s legend’ry!
Mr. Furious: Yeah… It was really more of a…
[waves hand sideways]
Mr. Furious: … a push, really, than a lift.
The Shoveler: That still takes INCREDIBLE super-human strength.
The Blue Raja: Indeed, it does! To push an entire bus out of the way.
Mr. Furious: Well, actually, the driver kinda had his foot on the accelerator… JUST in the beginning; just to get it going. Then it actually was me. But he kinda…
In the case of gay marriage, the driver’s had his foot on the accelerator for a few decades now, and it’s more than a bit absurd to see people desperate to justify their clicktivism by reframing the story around the “push” they gave it. Social conformity and peer pressure can certainly help solidify gains, but those gains themselves require a lot more than just bumper-sticker proclamations of belief.