In 2007, 13 years after the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, 12 years after a jury found O. J. Simpson innocent of those murders, and 10 years after a civil jury found him liable for them, Simpson published a book called If I Did It. Outrage ensued. To the many who needed no further evidence of Simpson’s guilt, the book was the horrific culmination of his long slide into desperation and depravity. Can a person not only get away with murder, they wondered, but profit from it in open daylight? Aren’t there any rules?
Last week’s Omarosa-driven frenzy of speculation over whether a tape exists of President Donald Trump using the N word brought the book back to mind. (Tellingly, this frenzy is also tinged with the question of what people with little credibility will do in the name of book profits, but that’s another story.) The conversation seemed to focus less on whether such a tape exists than whether it would “matter” if it did.
The past two years have offered a master class in the construction and destruction of norms, yet people still, somehow, seem to find themselves asking versions of these neat little black-or-white questions: Does it matter? Can he do it? The recurrence of these questions speaks to a craving for binaries—for rules—even after such clarity has proved unattainable, again and again. Countless sacrosanct, “inviolable” boundaries have been flagrantly and repeatedly trespassed. As rules matter less, we must all become much more capable of navigating the blurrier universe of effects, outcomes, and consequences.