Vegans to the Moon

November 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of those strange coincidences. For some reason, Monday morning I was sitting in my office thinking about Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners, his Ralph Kramden character stomping about the kitchen in anger and frustration. “One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . . POW. Right in the kisser.” Or he would threaten to hit her so hard, she would go “to the moon.” These were regular laugh-getters.

Here's a collection of these threats; the first “pow” comes at 6:55 into the clip. [T"his clip is no longer available. But if you are not familiar with this trope, search for “Honeymooners to the moon.”

We knew he didn’t mean it. So did Alice, who would respond – unfazed, arms akimbo, scornful – “Sure, Ralph.” (It was the fifties. “Yeah, right” didn’t yet exist.)

Even so, you couldn’t use that “joke” today, I thought. ’Taint funny, McGee.

The coincidence is that the next day, bellelettre at Scatterplot posted a link to a blogpost by a law professor, Michael Dorf Neil Buchanan*, who asks, “How quickly can norms change?” Here’s his first example of norms that have changed:
I recently watched a rerun of the 60's sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The story revolved around a woman who was drawn to a man because he was a mean drunk, bringing out her "maternal" side. The final line of the episode had one character saying to another: "You know what we should do? Go home and hit our wives." Raucous laughter, upbeat theme music, roll credits. It goes without saying that this is shocking to us today.
Dorf’s Buchanan's other examples, besides domestic violence, are smoking, the environment, and alcohol use / drunk driving. But what’s interesting is that in Dorf Buchananf’s version, these attitudes change seemingly by themselves. People just change their minds. Here’s his take on smoking:
The driving force in this social change seems to have been more a matter of deciding who had the right to force other people to do what they wanted. This may have been caused by concerns about suffering, but from my perspective it seemed to be more about attitudes toward public cleanliness. Smoking came to be seen as ugly, not dangerous (which people had known even before the surgeon general's report in the 60's).

Dorf Buchanan presents change as a strangely passive phenomenon. There’s no human action/agency involved. Smoking “came to be seen as.” You can’t do “to the moon” jokes anymore “because of a rapid and widespread public acceptance of a new norm.”

Dorf Buchanan, who is now a vegan, wants attitudes on veganism to change, and he frames the issue as a matter of the awareness of harm. Attitudes on smoking, domestic violence, and the rest changed because of a similar awareness of harm.

But how do people become aware? I guess law professors don’t know about “moral entrepreneurs.” Anti-smoking groups, MADD, NOW, etc. If veganism becomes more accepted, it will have more to do with the actions of PETA and other groups than with the outcome of Talmudic debates about the certainty of suffering.

*SocProf at Global Sociology pointed out that I incorrectly attributed the post to Dorf when in fact it was written by Buchanan posting on Dorf's blog.

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