One of the places where well-meaning people on the political Left undermine themselves with alarming regularity is in not understanding the distinction between normative vs. descriptive statements and not using enough normative statements.
It often goes something like this:
Something noxious happens.
A leader on the left (from President Biden to someone in a local community, but at the moment, let’s use Joe Biden as the example) says something like:
“This is not who we are! We are Americans! We are a generous people! We are a people who care about each other and help those who are suffering! We are a people who fight for the rights of all people and are committed to justice, freedom and equality!”
And then, like clockwork, comes the denunciation of those statements by other members of the Left, including some I really admire like John Oliver:
“Oh really? Clearly that isn’t us! Racism isn’t a historical artifact, Joe! It’s here now! This is bullshit!!!! You’re just whitewashing everything!”
In the above instant, President Biden is making a normative statement and it is getting interpreted as a descriptive statement by those who are attacking it. [And, by the way, you think Joe Biden, who was overwhelmingly supported by the Black community does not have a clear understanding of the current nature of racism? This kind of boggles my mind, if I am honest.]
A normative statement is declaring what things SHOULD be. It is a statement of standards. It is a statement that draws clear moral lines. It is a statement that says, “get in line with these values or we will not claim you as one of our own.” Human beings are social animals. The threat of ostracization is real and powerful. When a leader makes a normative statement, it is an act of not just asserting that an identity is, x – it is a statement that is creating an identity and collective identities have to be constantly re-created and reinforced. Normative statements are incredibly powerful and necessary.
As a quick Greek lesson: Themis is the Goddess of Justice. Themistes are utterances that are often oracular that have to do with Justice. They include two aspects: The way things ARE and the way things OUGHT TO BE. The purpose of oracular utterances is to give guidance to help CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN THE WAY THINGS ARE AND THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE. That is the work of humans in their societies. Normative statements are the way things ought to be. Descriptive statements are the way things are. We need to use these in conjunction with helping us close the gap. We are, instead, mistaking normative statements for descriptive statements and invalidating the vision in the normative statements.
The Left has shied away from making normative statements because they don’t seem to be able to differentiate them from descriptive statements which say “how things are.” But if you don’t have the normative element, then you have no guidance. The right never shies away from making normative statements and, in tripping over ourselves, we have ceded a tremendous amount of ground to them so that many on the Left are afraid to even claim any of the symbols of patriotism…ceding all of that and its associated power to the Right, large sections of which are now authoritarians.
We need a clearly articulated vision of what we are trying to accomplish and that needs to be framed in terms of norms that are tied to the identity of what being an American is. [Or more, locally, whatever group it is in which you have influence]. We need moral norms. We need to speak in moral language and shape a moral vision. And we cannot assume that a shared moral vision is just unconsciously obvious.
We want voting rights? Why? Presumably because we still believe in democracy. Well…almost half the country does not believe in democracy anymore. If we give into cynicism and talk about how BIPOC have never had full rights without strongly articulating how we will ensure they do and why, we feed that. Descriptive critiques of our short-comings MUST also clearly articulate the moral vision of democracy and the society we are trying to create.
You cannot build anything without a clear vision of what we are trying to build. Critique is not constructive if it is not linked to a generative vision of what you are trying to birth.
And I want to be really clear about this. There is a clear, terrifying vision that chunks of the political Right have of what they are trying to build and it is part of why they are so effective. There are big chunks who are essentially the Christian equivalent of the Taliban. They have a clear vision that unites them. They make normative statements ALL THE TIME and it gives them power.
I do believe there is compelling moral vision on the Left. I think it is far more generative than on the Right. But we need to start clearly articulating it and making normative statements that establish those values that can clearly establish our identity and claim that as what it means to be an American.
And when we make those moral statements that are what allow us to judge our progress, we need to stop undermining them by invalidating their reality by virtue of the fact that we are not there yet. Again, our job is to CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN THE WAY THINGS ARE AND THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE. We need to judge our statements by that standard.