Let's take a social problem, say, divorce. We know divorce is bad for children. We know it is bad for men. We know it is bad for women. We suspect that it is good for divorce attorneys. We know that it is, still, on the whole, bad for society. Hence, it would seem that it would be beneficial for society to try to minimize divorce. Yet there are a few factors that act against this impulse.
First, there is the appeal to anecdote. If, on the whole, divorce is known to be bad, people will nonetheless insist that they know someone who is better off after her divorce. Perhaps someone's Aunt Mable married a real low life who used to come home drunk and beat her and the children. Because divorce—or separation—may have been good for Aunt Mable, the argument by anecdote goes, we can make no qualitative judgments about divorce.
When one comes across evidence that bumps up against a blanket statement—and here, we extrapolate the anecdote into data—the correct thing is to alter the blanket statement, not toss it out altogether. Instead of: divorce is bad for wives, we may claim, divorce is bad for wives, except possibly for those who are beaten regularly by alcoholic husbands. But because we toss out the rule, rather than reformulate it, Aunt Mable causes us to invalidate the entire judgment. Social science is not physics; it speaks to general rules, true, for the most part, for a particular group of participants. The Law of Gravity brokers no exceptions; the Law of Divorce and Separation, plenty.
Second, the frequency of the incident, which impact the impetus to reform. Let us say that only a small portion of the populace, two percent, perhaps, is divorced. On the one hand, the infrequency of the occurrence means that the problem is comparatively insignificant. On the other, society can more easily move to ostracize the minority group.
This expression needs some unpacking. Our age, which prides itself on its tolerance—the veracity of which is a subject matter for another time—is fairly certain of two things. First, minority groups are to be praised. Second, ostracizing anyone is horrible. So to ostracize a minority group is the height of awfulness.
Of course, we do this all the time. Murderers are a distinct minority group. If all goes well, they are imprisoned, hopefully for life. This is a form of ostracism, though it is a good deal more besides. Now, I'm not in anyway comparing divorcees to murderers; I am simply pointing out that ostracizing a minority group is not, per se, illegitimate.
Thinking the matter over, it is almost impossible for a group that is not in the minority to be ostracized. If left handed individuals decided to ostracize right handers, the project would almost certainly fail. It is far more likely that right handed people could bring their power to bear against left handers than vice versa.
Once a group has reached, one will not say majority status, but some significant portion of the citizenry, it becomes harder to ostracize that group. After a few barbs from the left-handed, even the most maladroit right-handed individual will notice that he is not alone in his affliction. He will then either laugh it off, or turn the ostracism around.
We have not yet established the desirability of this strategy, merely some practical aspects of its application. Very briefly, we may dismiss the argument that ostracism does not work by reminding the reader of the American smoker. Whether or not he should have been shamed for his habit, there is no doubt he has been. Smoking has thus become less popular. At least some of the time, ostracism works.
Returning to our original example, so long as a small portion of the population was divorced, the majority could seek to exclude those who had worsened society through their divorces. In the case of our own country, that window has closed. For not only is close to half the population divorced, almost everyone knows someone who has been divorced. Even those of us who do not like divorce, who know how terrible it can be for all involved, will tend to soften when the potential subject of our ire is a close friend or a relative. Suddenly, every divorcee is another Aunt Mable. But society remains the worse all the same.
The takeaway, then, is to act before the prevalence of the problem renders effective action impossible. One waits, because there is always time, until there isn't. There is no scientific rule we can apply to know when to act. We can only know that waiting too long will prove disastrous. So it has been with our country and divorce. Fortunately, pendulums swing back—eventually.