A lot has been written about the pervasiveness of racism in America this year. One of the more obvious things to me was the observation that, for the better part of a decade or two, racism existed, but it was largely absent from polite conversation. It was occurring, but relegated to the shadows. Certainly, electing a black president had a part in that (and likely a part in agitating it in said shadows). It seemed to get worse, but why?
I probably don't have to explain that when a man enters politics and uses his platform to declare that a man, a president no less, is not American, for little reason other than he's black and knows the sentiment will resonate with certain people, it normalizes the racism. Then he runs for president and wins, along the way framing black and brown people as gang members, drug dealers and terrorists. Words matter, and in this case, a person with authority is giving people permission to be racist, in the open. If the president can be a racist, maybe it's OK for others to do the same.
When an authority figure like a president breaks other social conventions, it gives informal permission to people to do other things that are likely not to the benefit of our fellow humans. Look at the bizarre rejection of experts who have described ways to mitigate the pandemic. If the guy in the White House says it's all bullshit, well, then it gives me permission to reject that expertise as well. If he believes in whacked out conspiracy theories about the election, without evidence, then maybe it's OK for me to do the same.
It doesn't have to be that way. If we attempt to justify our own behavior by way of others, it's probably not right. There are countless social contracts that we engage in every day, like saying please and thank you, holding doors for others and not swearing in front of strangers or their children. If we see someone else rejecting those social contracts, even if they hold some authority, do we decide that it's OK to do the same? In most cases, no.
We know right from wrong. Someone else doing it wrong is not justification to do it wrong ourselves.