Any number of news outlets communicated a sense of outrage over the fact that James Comey apparently learned he’d been fired by looking up at news coverage on TV monitors while speaking before an audience in Los Angeles.
What these commentators were zeroing in on was the violation by Trump of what I call “notification norms.” One just doesn’t tell someone they are fired by telling someone else who then releases it to journalists so that one literally “hears about it on the news.”
Now, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, it might not matter much; you’re out of a job either way. But, we might say, how you find out can add insult to injury. But how, exactly, does that extra sting of shame happen? People felt it vicariously; as when the scalpel comes out on a medical show, one’s instinct is to turn away, though here it was not the integrity of skin that is violated, but the integrity of the self. One part of the self’s integrity requires that certain kinds of information breaches “just are not done.”
Every relationship comes with a set of informational expectations – things that a member of the relation knows she will be told in a certain way in a certain order. Your mother does not learn of your pregnancy from a casual acquaintance who heard it from a friend in the grocery store. One winces just thinking about such things. In professional settings, you learn where you are in the status order by which meetings you are invited to, which announcements are run by you before they are released, which things you learn about when others are asked to “give us the room.”
In the Comey affair, we experienced a gigantic collective wince as we saw someone of relatively high status – the director of the FBI on a ten year contract – socially demoted by a massive notification violation at the same time as we wince watching another high status actor, the president, wantonly disregard a notification norm. That’s the thing with norms – we feel it not just out of sympathy for the proximate victim of the violation; we feel the norm violation because it tells us all that we might not live in the kind of world we thought we lived in.
But the public discourse, especially in the media, about the inappropriateness of the notification does something to restore our sense of the world. What we saw last night, almost no matter what channel we tuned in to, were fellow citizens, not themselves victims of the breach of etiquette, calling it out. With each comment saying how inappropriate the manner of Trump’s notification of Comey was, we got a small step of the way back to being able to take for granted that certain information behaviors just aren’t done.